At the time, I was watering a young plant that I had just put in the ground.
At six feet and five inches, I’m a pretty big presence in the garden – rather hard to miss. That’s when the chirping began. Here, just a few feet away, was a tiny little brown collection of feathers, flashing its wings and doing its very best to shoo ME away from ITS garden.
I was insulted. I thought I had created this garden. I was certain, this was MY garden and this noisy and upset little fellow was only a visitor, not the owner of the garden.
Of course, I did hang a wren house from the patio cover a while back, so I guess I did send a garden invite to my little feathered friend. But like any house guest, I didn’t deed the whole place to him.
Whatever; he was clearly upset about at my presence in this garden and he urgently wanted me out.
So there we stood. Me, with gloves, hat and work boots, and well over six feet tall, with a big rusty metal shovel in my grip. Him, at best five inches long, maybe an ounce and butt naked. Like two prizefighters just before the big match, for a few seconds we stared each other down. I tried my best to intimidate him, to gain the upper hand psychologically.
He tried the same; staring right into my eyes. But I’m too smart for that. I know this trick. This is my garden. He can’t get in my head; he can’t intimidate me. I remember preparing the soil, digging the holes, sweating, weeding. Shucks, I even remember buying and hanging the little bird house that he now thinks he also owns. How dare him.
But it wasn’t really fair. He had a help. Inside the little wooden wren house hanging on two foot cord were a half dozen of his biggest supporters, his family, rooting him on, cheering wildly. Then, another house wren joined the battle, the lady of the household I presume.
I was surrounded and alone. My daughter was at school and wouldn’t be home for another two hours. I felt isolated; like a stranger in a quiet, deserted and unfamiliar alley; trapped, with now way out. They were clearly working as a team - and they were persistent. One worked itself along the top of a six foot fence just to my right, flashing its wings and dancing in anger. It was at eye level and its little beak looked especially pointy and sharp at such a close distance. Ouch, that would hurt, I thought.
The other, the sneaky one, was working back and forth along the edge of the patio, about ankle high, darting and dancing back and forth, clearly taunting me. It was showing off; I’m sure it must have watched tapes of Muhammad Ali. I didn’t trust this one at all.
The sun was warm and I began to perspire. I dropped the shovel. One eye was watching the garden squatter to my right while the other was trying to keep a bead on the sneaky one working down low. All the while, the rest of the family was loudly cheery in the balcony. It wasn’t fair. In my periphery I calculated my escape route.
Once safely on the other side of the fence I surveyed the former battlefield. Hungry baby house wrens chirp continually. The parents work almost constantly from sunrise to sunset collecting caterpillars, earwigs, small moths and even aphids. Carrying a meal, a wren dashes to the nest and dives through the entrance hole. For a moment, the sound ceases. Then she's out and gone, and the babies begin to cry again. They're still hungry!
Seldom do more than a couple of minutes pass between feedings. Observers have counted over 1000 feedings to a house wren brood in one day. Caterpillars off my chard, aphids from my orange tree, moths from the flower bed and little grasshoppers from who knows where. The garden does better when these wrens are in it; I know that.
I remember when the male wren first arrived, with loud, rollicking, bubbling songs. Wrens are tiny, smaller that finches and sparrows, but they sing big.
After exploring the whole yard, the male selected the birdhouse. I knew he liked it as he stood on top, puffed his chest and sung loudly. Then, with boundless energy he started bringing little twigs and stuffing them inside.
Today, two weeks following that showdown in the garden, I heard a different chattering. On the fence were two fluffy baby house wrens. The mother brought another caterpillar and they immediately showed their appreciation. For a few more days now I’ll see the wren family, but then they’ll be gone.
Now I’ve had a change of heart. Although, only days ago, we were nearly locked in combat, I will welcome my friends again next year. This is no longer my garden, it is our garden.
Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar.