Image by Emma Sancartier

Adapted from a Manx Folk Tale

A long while ago when there were not so many people on the earth as there are now, and the birds and animals had things about their own way, a Cuckoo gave a tea party.

She invited all the birds there were, from the great Eagle, through the Larks, Swallows, Finches, and Crows, down to the little brown bird that sings alone in the hedges and had no name then. She seated them all around her table, although it was a task to find places for them all; and she gave each bird whatever it liked best of all to eat.

Every one wondered why the Cuckoo took such trouble as this, and certain people say to this day, “as silly as a Cuckoo,” because of it; but when all the birds had eaten their fill, the Cuckoo hopped upon the table and addressed the assembled company.

“It seems to me,” said the Cuckoo, “that things have been going very badly with us for some time, and that all would be remedied if we had a king to settle our affairs and rule over us. I would suggest that we choose a king today.”

Oh, how the birds chirped, and chattered, and peeped at that. The Cuckoo had imagined that she would have the say as to which bird should be king, and she had in mind one of her own sons, but, no indeed! Each bird at the tea party was sure that he had royal blood in his veins, and they all began to argue and quarrel about it.

About that time a Rooster and a Hen passed by, taking their daily airing. They had not been invited to the tea party and so they were greatly excited at hearing the commotion; grandfathers, and fathers, and cousins, and sons among the birds were all talking and arguing at once.

“Wat? Wat?” clucked the Hen.

“I will go and see, my dear,” said the Rooster, and so he rushed into the midst of the tea party to see what all the hubbub was about. When he found out, he had a plan to offer. He was often called upon to settle disputes among the Hens, so he was always quite willing to help in any such matters.

“Have a test! Have a test!” said the Rooster. “You will never decide anything by arguing in this way; but it shall be decided that the bird who is able to fly the highest shall be your king.”

This seemed a fair way of settling the matter. All the birds agreed to it except the Plover, who went off into the woods and has lived there, wild, ever since.

Then the birds lighted in a row, and spread their wings, and flew with all their strength, and as high as they could, up, up into the air. One by one, though, they dropped back for they did not all have the same strength of wing. The Lark flew higher, indeed, than most of them, but finally he, too, was outstripped by the Eagle, who soared and soared until he was only a speck in the sky.

“The Eagle is our king! The Eagle is king of the birds!” sang all the others; but, no! Way, way above the Eagle flew another bird, so tiny that he looked like nothing but a mote, floating in the sunlight. It was the little brown bird that sings alone in the hedges, and had no name then. He had hidden himself in the Eagle’s feathers and had been carried up with him until he wanted to fly on by himself.

“I am the king of the birds!” he twittered as he flew down among the others again.

But the other birds did not wish this. They did not like to think of so tiny and humble a bird being exalted to be their king. They were about to fall upon the little brown bird and drive him out of their midst when the Rooster spoke to them again. Since the plan had been his, he wanted to make a success of it, so he said,

“The mistake was mine, all mine. This is how we will arrange it. The bird that is able to fall deepest into the earth shall be your king.”
The Rooster had a plan of his own in mind when he said this. As all the birds began to look about for places to jump into deeper places, and the Duck tried to see how long he could hold his head under water, the Rooster called to the Hen. He instructed the Hen to scratch, and when she had made a deep hole, he hid himself in it.

“I am king of the birds! I am your king!” the Rooster crowed, poking his head up out of the hole.

But the little brown bird that sings in the hedges, and had no name then, had again got the best of them all. What had he done but creep into a mouse hole, and there he was, deeper down in the earth than any of them.

“I am your king!” he twittered up to them.

Then all the birds were very much put out, for they saw that the little brown bird was truly the king. They decided, though, that they would not recognize him, and they appointed the Owl to sit, night and day, at the opening of the mouse hole and not allow the little brown bird to come out. Then all the birds went home from the Cuckoo’s tea party, and to bed, for they were quite worn out with all the excitement.

All went well that night with the Owl. He watched the mouse hole and did not allow the little brown bird to so much as put his bill out. When it came to be day, though, the Owl was tired, and he closed, first, one eye, and then the other eye. There he was, fast asleep, and out hopped the little brown bird who had a name now, because he was the little Hedge King.

It was a great disappointment to the other birds to be obliged to recognize so humble a little brown bird as their king, and they blamed the Owl for it. That is why he still sleeps in the daytime now, and looks about only at night. And that is why, also, he is such an enemy of the mice, continually hunting them in their holes.

But the little brown bird who sings alone in the hedges really made himself king of the birds. He has two names now, Hedge King, and Wren.