I adore nature writing, and was therefore keen to pick up something by prolific author Stephen Moss, who writes almost exclusively about birds. The blurb of the beautifully produced The Wren: A Biography says that this is a ‘captivating biography of Britain’s most common bird which lives – often unseen – right on our doorstep.’
With at least eight million breeding pairs in Britain, it seems curious that the majority of people – myself included – believe they have never seen one. In his introduction, Moss alludes to the reasoning behind this: ‘Perhaps that’s because wrens are so tiny, weighing less than half an ounce; or that they’re constantly on the move, behaving more like a mouse than a bird.’
The Wren is a year-in-the-life biography. Moss moves through each month, noting, as the book’s subtitle suggests, ‘The Secret Life of Britain’s Most Common Bird’. It begins on a ‘bright, cold winter’s day’, when Moss leans out of his kitchen window ‘soon after sunrise’. Here, he observes a wren, describing it thus: ‘… quiet and unassuming, lurking deep in the shadows beneath the shrubbery, like a shy actor waiting in the wings, while others take centre stage.’ He then goes on to comment that he has seen wrens all over the United Kingdom, ‘from the heart of London to the remotest offshore island.’
The book features gorgeous illustrations throughout, and contains such charming details of wrens in popular culture and literature, from William Shakespeare to William Blake. Moss writes of the different names bestowed upon the birds throughout history, from the Jenny wren to the tomtit. He also explores the ‘fascinating folklore surrounding this species.’
In each chapter, Moss references others who have written extensively about the wren. Revered ornithologist Max Nicholson, for instance, described the wren as ‘a bird of crevices and crannies, of woodpiles and fallen trees, of hedge-bottoms and banks, walls and boulders… Wrens therefore can cut across, or rather scramble under, the imaginary boundaries which we are accustomed to draw between different types of country.’
Throughout The Wren, Moss writes at length of many aspects of the existence of the wren. He looks at the historical migration of the wren, which has meant that different variations of the bird can be found around the world. He talks of their song, their mating rituals, the distribution of the birds, their preferred habitats, the effects of climate change upon them, the nest building process, and the fledging of the chicks, amongst other fascinating details.
The Wren is the most darling nature book, and one of the most engaging about a single species which I have read to date. It is informative and immersive from its very beginning, and the structure, which follows a single calendar year, works wonderfully. Moss’ prose is beautifully descriptive, and he speaks authoritatively throughout.
The Wren is sure to appeal to anyone interested in the natural world, and I thoroughly enjoyed Moss’ take on the tiny birds. I am so excited to read more of his books, and feel that he could easily become one of my very favourite nature writers.