Kids love to find a word that gets under the skin of a brother, sister, or enemy. This word often gains its power due scatological or other socially inappropriate connotations. For me, the word troglodyte carried great import. If someone were a troglodyte, he or she was a knuckle scraping Neanderthal. What could be more insulting?
Imagine my surprise to discover a word I secretly called my worst enemies and frequently thought my brother was part of the scientific name of one of my favorite birds, the house wren (aka troglodytes aedon).
How we come to love certain birds and animals creates the some of the stories that make up our lives. I learned to love little wrens because of my grandmother. She loved her wrens so much she made efforts to offer clean, cheap, attractive housing in her backyard apricot tree every spring. To reward grandma’s efforts, a little wren family returned spring after spring to enjoy her shady rental where they sang and darted about her yard as they raised that season’s nestlings.
At that point in my life, birds were just birds, but because Grandma said, “Oh, listen. There’s my wren,” so often I learned to recognize its song. Due to her reminders, the perky, streamlined wren shape engraved its outline in my brain. However, to an adolescent girl, they were still just birds as sparrows and grackles are just birds. However, because grandma loved her little wrens and I loved grandma, I sat under that apricot tree many summer evenings to help her spot them as they flitted about her yard hunting supper like three-year-olds dashing after candy-filled Easter eggs.
At the time, I didn’t realize what a lovely gift grandma had to share. Now, decades later and missing Grandma, I too wish to have wren nest nearby—not only for the memories triggered, but also for the joy of listening to their cheery tunes or their saucy scolding and the pleasure of watching pure energy zip from one branch to another or from one flower pot to another.
Last summer we spotted a wren family living in a cavity of a nearby tree. However, distance and thick branches made them hard to see. This spring I hoped to view them more often so I hung a wren house in a protected area near the back patio. I hadn’t expected immediate success, so it thrilled me to discover a pair of wrens, maybe the same pair from last spring, found my real estate offering satisfactory and moved in to start a family.
In no time, I could peek out the backdoor window and spot them searching to devour insects in the flowerpots decorating the back porch. I placed several planters around the edges of the porch to brighten up my evening contemplations, not realizing the containers of petunias, Johnny jump ups, moss rose, geraniums, herbs, and pansies would draw insects that would create a regular food mart for hungry wrens.
Not only did they find the flowers pots a boon, they also discovered patio lights draw insects by the gazillions. It didn’t take the little pair long to find a perch on the watermelon sign hanging directly under the light where they could sit and eat with ease--patio dining at its finest.
The wrens busy themselves morning and night. Each morning we hear them competing noisily with a thrasher whose family lives in a nearby cedar. Each wants to establish territorial boundaries with song. Perhaps warring nations should take a hint.
So how did a charming little bird that looks or acts nothing at all like a Neanderthal get the scientific name of troglodytes aedon? I decided to check out the dictionary to see if my childhood definition was wrong. It wasn’t. Caveman is one definition of troglodyte. However, the term also means hermit and cave dweller.
Some scientists in the past must have noted these little birds’ fondness for nesting in cavities of trees, fences, and logs--hence troglodyte. I have to think that person had a sense of humor when he or she named a darting, brown flash of song in the image of a scruffy, knuckle scraping cave dweller. “Troglodyte” will never have the power it had in the past to cut to the quick with three syllables.