O NCE upon a time the cuckoo gave a big tea-party. It was a grand affair, I can tell you. Every bird of note was present, from the eagle down to the sparrow. All the finches were there, the larks, crows, and swallows; so how they managed to seat them all is more than I can tell.
Now, the cuckoo was a wise old bird, and she never took a step of this sort without a reason. You sometimes hear people say, "As silly as a cuckoo," but you may take my word for it, it is only because they know nothing at all about her.
Well, a bright idea had occurred to the cuckoo, and it was just this: She thought it was high time the birds chose a king of their own. If they had a king, you see, they might in time be able to have a "Court Circular," which would sound very grand. Besides, who knew but that in the future some of her own family might even marry royalty? Yes, it was a good idea, she thought, but the other birds would have to be consulted first.
So she gave a big tea-party, and fed them all up with the finest worms and dainties to be had, just to put them into a good temper.
Even the hungry sparrow finished eating at last—and you have no idea what his appetite was like!—and then the cuckoo broke the news gently that she thought they ought to have a king to manage their affairs for them.
Now this caused no end of commotion. And there they sat—fathers, mothers, uncles, and cousins, all talking away at the same time.
Just then the cock and hen passed by, taking a little airing.
You must know that they had heard nothing about the tea-party. They were just the cock and hen, and it did not matter much what they thought; so they did not get an invitation.
"Wat! wat!" cried the hen, when she heard the dreadful din. Of course the cock understood her language, and knew that she was asking what was going on.
"I'll find out, my dear," he answered, and he inquired from a fat, green frog.
"They want to choose a king over the birds," he told the hen, a minute after.
"Stuff and nonsense!" clucked the hen; only it did not sound quite like that, because she spoke in her own language, you see.
Well, the end of it all was that everybody was in favor of a king, save the plover, and he cried: "I have been free all my life, and I'll die free!" Then away he flew to a dismal swamp, and was seen no more.
So they agreed to meet again next morning, if it was fine. Their king was to be the bird who could fly higher than all the rest, and they wanted a fine day so that nobody could say afterward, "I could have flown much higher, only it was so windy," or something of the sort.
The next day was perfect, so they all gathered together in a big meadow. When the cuckoo had counted "Three," they all rose up with one accord into the air, making such a cloud of dust that for a moment you could not see a thing.
Higher and higher they flew, but one by one the little birds had to give up, and in the end the eagle was the only bird left flying, and he looked as though he had reached the sun itself.
But a tiny little bird had joined them unasked, and he had not even a name.
Nobody noticed him hide himself among the feathers in the eagle's back; so when the cuckoo had counted three, up he went with the rest, although they did not know it.
Now, when the eagle saw that all the others had given up, he, too, began to descend. Then out flew the little bird without a name, and up he went, much higher still.
"I am king! I am king!" cried the eagle, when he reached the ground.
"Not at all," replied the little bird without a name, "for I have flown higher still," and then down he came.
"I am king! I am king!" he chirped, as soon as he got his breath again.
"You crafty little creature!" they shouted, with one voice. "We will have another test, and a fair one this time."
So the bird who could fall deepest into the earth was to be their king, they said.
Well, the cock set to work and began to grub a hole in the ground, while the duck jumped down into a grave; but unluckily she sprained her foot, and she waddled off, saying: "Bad work! Bad work!"
But the little bird without a name crept right into a mouse-hole, and cried shrilly:
"I am king! I am king!"
"Then we will show you how we treat our royalty!" cried the angry birds. "We will keep you in the mouse-hole and starve you."
So they set the owl to keep watch over the hole during the night, and if he let the bird go he was to be put to death on the spot. The others were all so tired and weary that they flew home and went to bed.
Now, when he had stared into the hole for two whole hours, the poor owl began to feel very sleepy. So he went to sleep with one eye and watched intently with the other, and all went well for a time. But as luck would have it, when he shut one eye, after a while, he forgot to open the other, and you may be sure the little bird without a name soon made his escape from his prison.
After that the poor owl never dared show his face again by day, for fear the birds should put him to death. He flies about all night long, and he is a great enemy of the little mice because they make such—to him—unfortunate holes.
As for that little bird without a name, he did not feel very safe either, so he always hid in the hedges, and when he felt pretty secure he would cry out: "I am king! I am king!"
In time the other birds grew to call him the "Hedge king," just for scorn, and that means "Wren." That is how he came by his name.