In yesterday’s column I touched on the arrival of east coast vagrants, birds that had been drifted to our shores while on their autumn migration south. One of these, the Wryneck, deserves a more detailed piece, not least because of its rather unusual character.
The first thing that strikes you about the Wryneck is its size. As a member of the woodpecker family I’d always expected my first Wryneck to be a substantial creature, similar in size to a Great Spotted Woodpecker. Instead, the small and slender bird that greeted me prompted the involuntary comment ‘it’s tiny!’ In terms of body length the Wryneck is only a little smaller than a Starling but it is of slighter build, a characteristic further emphasised by some of the postures that it adopts. As a child I had a similar response to my first Mole (found dead by the side of the road) and Kingfisher (glimpsed on a local stream); both were significantly smaller than I’d imagined.
With its brown, grey and black vermiculated plumage and its short but pointed bill, the Wryneck doesn’t look like your typical woodpecker either. Unlike other woodpeckers it does not use its tail for support when climbing, nor does it hammer with its bill, preferring instead to chisel away. It can sometimes be seen perching crossways on a branch (again rather unwoodpecker-like) and even its flight bears little resemblance to that of its relatives. Most of the Wrynecks I have seen have been on the ground, either on coastal dunes or the lawns of suburban gardens. In both of these localities the birds will have been foraging, searching the ground for ants.
For me, part of the attraction of the Wryneck is the folklore with which it is associated, even though most of this lore remains firmly rooted elsewhere in Europe. Of particular interest is the name ‘snakebird’, which was used widely across southern England when the bird once bred here in good numbers. This association comes from the defensive display, in which the bird writhes its head around in a strongly reptilian fashion. I have been told that this behaviour is all the more striking when seen at the nest hole, since here the chicks also indulge in the writhing display, occasionally darting out their tongues and all the while uttering a most snake-like hiss. This behaviour, and its effect on nest-robbing children, is wonderfully described in John Clare’s poem ‘The Wryneck’s Nest’.
In the ancient world the Wryneck was ascribed magical powers and associated with various fertility rites. It may have been the bird’s snake-like behaviour that first suggested magical properties, since snakes were strongly associated with fertility. Even now, there is something magical about the Wryneck.