Monday, May 3, 2010

House Wrens and the Imbuers

Each morning these days I am awakened by the twittering exuberance of our local house wren. It sounds like this little fellow is right outside the window; we’ve got the windows open again this glorious spring. Though I struggle with the pollen, we enjoy the scents of green and blooming things, and even the smell of the rain, and appreciate the lower energy bills.

The wrens came back last month. The males precede the females on the trip north and divvy up their territories first. Then the females arrive, and each male’s song turns from a wary and fairly routine “this is my space” to an urgent, vigorous love-call, full of lusty promises to the female, as he shows her his “properties.”

That’s how Sue described it Friday morning when she noticed that Mr. Wren had as his audience a female, whose attention he was clearly directing to our three wren boxes (which we cleaned out and rehung as soon as we started hearing wren music this spring).

We bought a new box for them this year, and we hung it from the rock peach tree, where the popular but ill-fated house had hung last year.

Mr. Wren seemed very optimistic about his prospects—but despite his high hopes, he never slacks in his work of self-promotion: Female wrens are notoriously picky.

Whenever birds or other creatures start seeming to me like biological subjects, soulless Cartesian automatons of meat and bone, I return to my library of old nature books. Even the ones written by scientists, for popular audiences, anthropomorphize like crazy, compared to how naturalists write today. And I think we’ve lost something in the process: Maybe, on some primal level related to our human propensity for myth and personal immediacy, we need to endow animals with human traits—first—in order to make the leap toward an objective and fair understanding. Yes—gripping emotional interest first, intellectual rigor second. Well, it’s just an idea I have.

One of my cherished books is Birds of America, edited by T. Gilbert Pearson, first published in 1917, though my copy is from 1936. The book is out-of-date—taxonomies have been revised, species have been extirpated and extinguished, and others have been introduced or have moved into new areas. The house finch, for instance, was a completely western species when this book was written, extending only as far as the western edge of the Great Plains. What a difference a hundred years makes!

In many other ways, however, this volume is timeless. The physical descriptions are thorough and precise, written back in the day when bird-fanciers were quite likely to be identifying a bird “in the hand” as opposed to tracking it through binoculars as it flits through leaves and branches at the crack of dawn.

Each species has a technical description followed by a short essay describing character, habits, and other topics; these essays can be quite fanciful by today’s ironclad objective standards. For example, this volume offers that the “Jenny wren” is, “in truth, . . . a good deal of a shrew, and a chronic scold on general principles. By the same token, Johnny is likely to present a pretty good imitation of a henpecked husband, for from the moment he promises to love, cherish, and obey Jenny, he hardly dares say his soul is his own. However, he doesn’t appear to be in the least depressed by this state of affairs, for his bubbling song is one of the merriest and most spontaneous of bird utterances” (Pearson, 3:193).

Describing the wren as “a tiny fidgety body with an up-turned tail” does give you a pretty good impression of this creature, even though the fidgetiness is an outright anthropomorphism, a human judgment-call, when the truth of the situation is that the wren is simply a fast, efficient avian predator of insects; its movements, if quick, are calculated. If we all hunted insects for a living, quick, jerky movements would be the standard of normalcy.

Natural history educators today, more than they ever have in the past, are scrupulously careful not to bestow human attributes onto animals when interpreting nature to the public, and even to children. But maybe that’s not a good idea. Maybe it is a failing experiment. It’s bad enough that fewer and fewer Americans ever “get outside”; the current obsession with dehumanizing our nonhuman companions on this spinning planet simply widens the gap, makes us care less.


Another of my favorite books in the “birds” section of my natural history library is Joseph Kastner’s A World of Watchers, which is an incredibly entertaining guided tour of bird watching in America. Kastner devotes an entire chapter to “The Imbuers,” the countless ladies who, in the early half of the last century, enthusiastically ushered youngsters into the marvelous world of bird-watching:

A reader going through the annals of birddom, the little small-print stories in the old birding journals, comes across a fine old-fashioned word: “imbue.” It almost always referred to somebody whose name was prefixed by “Miss” and who was, often, a teacher. Miss Mary Agnes Tillisch imbued the children of St. Paul with a love of birds. Miss Fannie Stebbins imbued the children of Springfield, Massachusetts, with an understanding of nature. . . .

There were thousands like them who worked through the Junior Audubon clubs, using their ten-cent pamphlets as texts. Their teaching could be sentimental and superficial and their bird walks just an excuse for an outing. Still, they opened the children’s eyes to nature and, in the end, helped produce multiplying generations of bird watchers. Except for little pats of appreciation in Bird-Lore or in the school columns of local newspapers, these imbuers have been forgotten. (Kastner, 156)

Kastner relates that one of these “imbuers,” Miss Blanche Hornbeck of Jamestown, New York, struggled to “tame an unruly seventh-grader named Roger Peterson, got him looking at birds and sent him on to become the world’s best-known birder.” I suspect that a great many of today’s biologists got their start because someone took their hands at a young age and made nature come alive for them, in a personalized, immediate way: Touch the feather. Call the colorful male a “dandy.” Memorize a goofy lyric to learn by heart the birdsong.

For an example of the anthropomorphism these women employed, Kastner describes one typical “imbuer” as being “shameless about endowing birds with human traits. Woodpeckers are ‘phlegmatic,’ waxwings ‘gentle, courteous, elegant,’ the cardinal ‘a shining example of self-conscious superiority.’ . . . The catbird with its ‘glorious song . . . hateful catcalls and squawks’ is ‘the “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” of birds,’ while the mockingbird was the ‘angel that . . . the catbird was before he fell from grace’” (Kastner, 167).

I think my Grandma Schroeder fit this “imbuer” category. As a young mother, she volunteered as a leader with the Missouri Conservation Commission’s “Nature Knights” program, which was a nature-enrichment club for youngsters. Participants received rewards such as patches and medals and went on nature outings, learning about birds and plants as well as the latest conservation issues.

Yes, my grandma was an “imbuer.”


I started this post mentioning that I had been awakened by our local house wren, because the first thought I had upon waking was that this tiny, noisy creature was my “natural alarm clock.” This idea isn’t mine, however; it comes from my Grandma.

Living here in her house occasionally offers us fascinating new insights into her personality and life, and the life of my dad’s whole family. Our most recent discovery was a folder of typed papers, clippings, and a small stack of magazines. The papers are yellowed, and the typing was manual. I suppose my dad was the one who typed these for her. Back in the fifties, I guess. There are some corrections penciled in, and certain words are underlined: Grandma must have used these as speeches.

Maybe these were presentations she gave to the garden club, or perhaps to her circle at church. I don’t know for sure. Two have captivated my interest the most: “Adventure with Herbs,” which I’ll talk about sometime in the future, and an untitled typescript on her “feathered friends.”

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how marvelous it was to discover these short texts. Grandma wasn’t much of a writer—she was definitely more of a talker! But finding these little essays—well, she’s been gone ten years now, and of course you would just figure there is nothing new for her to “say.” You just figure she’s silenced forever. You just figure you’ve heard her voice for the last time on this earth.

In her speech on birds, she lists and comments on the birds that frequented her yard—now our yard. Some, like the purple martins she and her father adored so much, who for nearly a century were as loyal to them as they were to the martins, no longer come around. It’s the same with purple finches—Grandma wrote that they “invade our lawns and trees in March and April,” but I haven’t seen a purple finch in decades. Meanwhile, although she seems to have listed every bird that passed through her yard, she said nothing about mourning doves, which are now so common.

I’d like to share with you, from her writing on birds, her comments about the house wren. As you read it, imagine how excited I was to discover this, right when the wrens were returning to our backyard. Imagine that the wrens scoping out our birdhouses might be descendants of the same twittering Johnny and Jenny Wrens that thrilled my grandma. For my part, I imagine my grandma’s voice saying these words, in that exuberant way of hers. That's why I've italicized the words she had underlined.

The liveliest singer in our back yard is the House Wren. Early some morning in April, there will go off under our window that most delightful of all alarm clocks—the friendly House Wren, just returned from a long visit south. Like some little mountain spring that, having been imprisoned by winter ice, now bubbles up from the spring sunshine and goes rippling along over the pebbles, tumbling over itself—so this little Wren’s song bubbles, ripples, cascades in a miniature torrent of ecstasy. After the Wren’s happy discovery of a place to live in, his song will go off in a series of musical explosions all day long, now from the roof, now from the clothesposts, the fence, or lawnchair. There never was a more tireless, spirited, brilliant singer.

Year after year, Wrens return to the same nesting places. The nest is kept scrupulously clean. The house cleaning, like the house building and renovating, being accompanied by the cheeriest of songs, that makes the bird fairly tremble by its intensity. But however angelic the voice of the House Wren, its temper can put to flight even the English Sparrow. [Grandma would comment later in her speech: “Like the poor, the Sparrows are always with us.”]

The male begins to carry twigs into the house before he finds a mate. The day she arrives on the scene, how he does sing. Dashing off for more twigs and stopping to sing to her every other minute, he helps furnish the cottage quickly, and he overdoes it and then pulls them out again. Jenny is a bustling housewife and will not tolerate vermin or dirt within her well-kept home. What rent do they pay? No man is clever enough to estimate the vast number of insects on your place that they destroy. They eat nothing else, which is the chief reason why they are so lively and excitable. Unable to soar after flying insects because of their short, round wings, they keep as a rule rather close to the ground, which their finely barred brown feathers so closely match. Whether hunting for grubs in the woodpile, scrambling over the brush heap after spiders, searching in trees, or creeping like feathered mice, they are always busy in your interest which is also theirs. It certainly pays, in every sense, to encourage Wrens.


Books Adored in This Post

Joseph Kastner, A World of Watchers: An Informal History of the American Passion for Birds (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1986).

T. Gilbert Pearson, ed., Birds of America. With original paintings by Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1917; reprint, New York: Doubleday, 1936).

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