Keeping up Appearances

There are times, are there not, when someone looks incredibly innocent, and their appearance could not be further from the truth.

Some of the most dangerous of our criminals did not stand out in any way: many of them wore a cloak of anonymity, behind which they could carry out atrocities.

Like John Christie. The sixth of seven, the boy was dominated by his sisters and an over protective mother; his adult life was a sad petty string of failures.

He could not talk loudly, something he blamed on a mustard gas attack in the First Wold War. He worked for the Post Office Savings Bank, a nondescript figure living in Notting Hill, back when it was a down-at-heel place to be. As a postman, he was convicted of stealing postal orders and sent down for three months. His crimes gathered violence and momentum, but no-one joined the dots.

There was one thing that marked the murderer of eight out: his huge domed head. When he wore a hat, he faded into the background, a nobody with a chequered past.

Why? Why was he appointed to the National Savings Bank when he had convictions for stealing postal orders? Why was he a member of the War Reserve Police in the Second World War, despite a criminal record?

I have a theory. This was Mr Cellophane. He was just too nondescript: apart from that dome head.

Here’s a story. You won’t hear it elsewhere: it comes from the granddaughter of the policeman who arrested Christie, an acquaintance of an acquaintance of an acquaintance. He had gone on the run but not with any passion or colour: he remained in London, the story goes.

So a police officer stumbled upon a gentleman living rough in one of the parks. The vagrant wore plenty: including a large hat. The police officer saw a distinct resemblance between the man’s features and the mug shots being circulated of Christie at the station.

But one couldn’t be sure. This man’s features were almost generic.

There was only one way to find out whether this was the man who had left a trail of tragedy behind him, with ill-concealed evidence. “Excuse me, Sir,” the policeman asked: “Would you mind removing your hat?”

He did: the dome was revealed; and the rest is history.

Insignificance carries its own cloak of invisibility.

Yesterday, the nesting box which has been ignored for two years; which was knocked down in some sundry basketball practice and replaced; of which I had given up all hope of its ever being occupied; that nesting box has visitors.

A bird was dashing in and out, bringing wisps of fern and straw with the industry of a homemaker. This was her equivalent of hauling in the IKEA sofa and setting up the widescreen on the wall.

The occupant was the smallest, brownest, least imposing bird you ever did see.

It was, we all concluded, a wren.

The wren is unassuming. One look at it and you know, instinctively that it has no criminal record: for how could something that small and unthreatening ever harbour malice?

The wren is an emblem: it is the name of the Womens’ Royal Naval Service; it was the picture on the back of an old farthing.

Yet the wren family stretches across the globe, and its relatives exhibit some singular behaviour.

In the insect world the wren is a fearsome monster. And it works hand in hand with some merciless partners.

The wren is one of a group of birds called ant-followers. They are said, in the tropical forests of the new world, to follow army ants, kamikhaze creatures who attack an area en masse, forcing insects into the open. The wren waits until they emerge and then pounces.

The macabre arrangement is propitious for both parties, ants and wren. The ants chase the insects out, and the birds scare them right back into the hungry ants’ path.

Shady characters, these wrens.

Even, it has to be said, fairy wrens. With pretty purple crowns.

For years these small creatures have been confounding the Darwinians, because they look after young: not just their young, but anyone’s. Such altruism flies in the face of natural selection, surely?

Not according to research by Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and Michelle L. Hall of the Australian National University.

About this time last year they published evidence in The American Naturalist that shows the wrens are the tiniest Fagins in existence.

They look after strays, it transpires, so they will have helpers in their territory in later life.

They coral a group of vagabond children around them to do their bidding just like Dickens’ villainous villain-maker.

Maddie is poised at the window, binoculars in hand, silently adoring the little brown creatures flitting in and out of the nesting box.

But I know better.

Picture source here

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49 thoughts on “Keeping up Appearances

  1. I did not know the Wren’s life was so altruistic – I love them. There are more than 10 million Wrens in the British Isles but strangely you do not see them often. We have one that runs around the edge of our heather bed looking like a little clockwork mouse.

    • So the wren has stolen your heart, Rosemary? His propensity to nurse apprentices wins you over? Mark my words, he’s just pacing your garden in reconnaissance prior to launching his dastardly plot for world domination….

      Paranoid? Me?

  2. The back wall of our house is like a council estate of nesting birds. The stone house that we live in has been constructed of stones laid one on top of the other with no mortar or foundations. This is a living, breathing structure in which any gap will be filled with life, be they lizards, birds or field mice. As the walls inside are exposed stone, but filled with a mixture of sand and lime, the creatures do not encroach on our living space as they have 50cm thick stone walls as their domain.

    • It must be cacophony at dawn, Roger…who needs an alarm clock?

      It does beg the question about modern housing: whether is has robbed birds of a secure habitat, which uses the warmth and scraps a human household can provide. Hmmm.

    • I’m a bit contrary and dark-minded right now, Linda. Of course, the wren is a sweet creature whom my entire family is engaged in adoring through the kitchen window as we speak.

      I got hung up on the Fagin conjecture. Altruistic is a word that has been used about wrens for a long time now: yet the evidence of naturalists shows they have an ulterior motive, the training of apprentices. A double life.

    • There are plenty of meanie birds our there, aren’t there, Lou? Like the cuckoos which chuck eggs out of their nests and lay their own, using other species as surrogate parents. As Phil say: shocking parenting…

  3. Our state bird is the Carolina Wren, though we seldom see them here on the coast. I’m sure they exhibit the same tendencies as other wrens the world over.

    We always have a nest in our back yard, until this year. And, that’s just as well, since we’re leaving it. I understand Maddie’s excitement, though. Several years ago, when we rented a cabin in the mountains, a bird built a nest under the eaves of the back deck. (These birds were not afraid of people, it turns out.) I went out there several times a day and, lying flat on my stomach, talked to those birds through the crack in the floor. I even took pictures of them through the crack. I was heartbroken when they flew away, and I missed it.

    • Such a wonderful thing to see them living out their lives in the same way we do, Andra, when most of the year they are distant spirits of the air.

      That was some piece of writing today, by the way. Incredible. Almost as if the cowboy moved in and took residence for a short while…

      • Actually, if I had to translate my Dad’s speech patterns, that post would be it. Not that he’s an outlaw or anything, but the words were spelled the way he sounds. After I read the post, it’s no wonder you couldn’t understand him.

  4. If you only knew how apropos this is, today. It can be so lonely and frustrating when you seem to be the only one who can see behind someone’s elaborate, ingratiating mask. And no, I certainly don’t mean you…

  5. I have always believed wrens to be cheerful, sprightly little creatures and didn’t know of this somewhat darker side of their nature. It’s a bit unsettling. :(

    My grandmother’s cousin was an avid birdwatcher, her binoculars and bird books never far from reach. As a child I spent many hours at her side on various park benches, watching and trying to absorb some of her knowledge. She’s been gone for many years, but I have the very tiny, hand-carved Jenny Wren that graced her bookshelf when I was young.

    Hope your new neighbors will provide lots of entertainment these next few weeks. By the way, did you know of this Jenny Wren near you? http://www.walkersquay.com/jennywren.html

  6. We don’t get songbirds in our garden so when two blue tits took to sitting on the wire outside the kitchen we were delighted. Short lived emotion because now they’ve decided to nest in the soil pipe cavity and are chucking out the polystyrene balls which pass for insulation. Shady creatures indeed. I don’t know if they’ve got an IKEA sofa and a widescreen TV yet though. :)

  7. Appearances are indeed deceiving . . .

    I shall never look at a wren again in quite the same way.
    Shades of Fagin and the Artful Dodger shall no doubt intrude.

  8. I am marveling. Off to Google Christie and his pate, then back again with John C. Reilly’s performance in Chicago echoing in my head only to discover the quiet criminal masterminding of wrens.

  9. So interesting watching the birds… mini-dinosaurs with feathers they reckon now don’t they?

    We have a light inside our porch and a couple of years ago a little tit started making a nest behind there, which was a little risky, given that the light can get rather hot if left on. So after they’d gone I stuff the gap to prevent a re-occurrence.
    This year there is evidence they are back building a nest up there….. I shall have to put tape over the light switch again!

    • Yes: when you think that birds were once running around as dinosaurs a lot of pieces fall into place, don’t they?

      Those tits. They do love their heat. Reminds me of a jack russell I knew who used to singe his fur ecstatically by going far too close to a roaring hearth fire….

  10. We don’t seem to get many wrens up here Kate for some reason, but every now and then one will come along just to let us know they are there. We haven’t seen many sparrows over the past few years either, but they seem to be back in numbers this year. I often wonder what they are getting up to when we can’t see them…

  11. Birds (and cows) are not what they seem. You do draw the most fascinating links, Kate. There are more than a few Christies among us, I’m sure – *shudder*

  12. I don’t know Christie…but I am now quite curious to see a picture of him! I need to do a little “wren” research, too, I think. The little bird I call wren, may not be so–slightly different appearance, but a very sweet little bird. I echo Nancy, Kate. Mindful of your mom. Debra

  13. Ahh, I didn’t know about the mothering instinct of the wren but we have plenty and other critters to so perhaps they’ve all been collected by the wrens.

  14. I love wrens. They are busy birds, aren’t they, flitting to and fro, chattering away. I’d be just like Maddie, perched and watching their progress even if they are up to scratching up the ant hills of life.

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