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Troglodyte Miscue


Kids love to find words that get under the skin of siblings or enemies. This term  gains power due scatological or other socially inappropriate connotations. For me, the word troglodyte, meaning knuckle-scraping Neanderthal, carried great import.. What could be more insulting?

Imagine my surprise to discover a word I secretly called my worst enemies was part of the scientific name of one of my favorite birds, the house wren.

How we come to love certain birds and animals creates the stories that make up our lives. I learned to love little wrens because of my grandmother. She loved the little brown birds so much she hung clean, attractive birdhouses in her backyard apricot tree every spring. To reward grandma’s efforts, a wren family returned every April to enjoy the shady rental where they sang and darted about the yard and 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,” I learned to recognize its song. Due to her reminders, the perky, streamlined shape engraved its outline in my brain. To an adolescent, they were birds much like sparrows and grackles. 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 hunting supper like three-year-olds dashing after candy-filled Easter eggs.

At the time, I didn’t realize what a lovely gift Grandma shared. Now, decades later, I too wish to have wren nest nearby—not only for the memories triggered, but also for the joy of their cheery tunes, their saucy scolding, and the pleasure of watching pure energy zip from one flower pot to another.

Last summer we spotted a wren family occupying a nearby tree cavity. However, distance and thick branches made them hard to see. Wanting to view them more easily, I hung a house near our protected back patio. I hadn’t expected immediate success, so I thrilled to discover a pair, maybe the couple from the previous spring, found my real estate offering satisfactory and moved in.

In no time, I could peek out the backdoor to spot them devouring insects in the clay containers lining the back porch. I placed several planters around the edges of the porch to brighten up my evening contemplations, not realizing the resultant petunias, Johnny jump ups, moss rose, geraniums, herbs, and pansies would draw insects that would create a gourmet food mart for hungry wrens.

Not only did these little birds find the pots a boon, they also discovered patio lights draw insects by the gazillions. It didn’t take the pair long to perch on the watermelon sign hanging directly under the light so they could relish patio dining at its finest.

Those wrens busied themselves morning and night. Each dawn we heard them competing noisily with a thrasher whose family lived in a nearby cedar. Each species wanted to establish territorial boundaries with song.

So how did a charming little bird that acts nothing like I imagine a Neanderthal behaves earn the scientific name of troglodytes aedon? I decided to check 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 past scientist must have noted these little birds’ fondness for nesting in tree, fence, and log cavities--hence troglodyte. I have to think that individual had a keen sense of humor to give a darting, brown flash of song a moniker describing a scruffy, knuckle-scraping cave dweller. Unfortunately, the term troglodyte no longer possesses power to cut to the quick in three syllables.