Saturday, December 04, 2010
Golden-crowned Kinglet - Winter's Elf
The “Rule” makes sense, and we might readily think of the Wooly Mammoth, once the largest mammal to walk the earth and a creature of the frozen edges of the glaciers. The Kodiak bears of Alaska are the largest bears, and polar bears are not far behind. The moose, the largest deer, lives in the northern forest. The largest falcon is the Gyrfalcon and the largest owls are the Snowy and Great Gray Owls, all creatures of the arctic tundra or boreal forests. The largest songbird is the Common Raven, and the largest individuals of this species are those which live in the northern forests.
Unfortunately, the “Rule” is quickly subject to exceptions. North America’s largest land bird, the Wild Turkey, ranges south of the Canadian border. The smallest representatives of the grouse family, the White-tailed, Willow, and Rock Ptarmigans are year-round birds of the boreal forest or arctic tundra. And those large predators, the falcon and owls, depend upon the year-round activity of a very small mammal - the meadow vole.
Golden-crowned Kinglets can be seen, or more likely heard, in our forests throughout the year. In winter, they may be foraging through any coniferous stand. In summer, they are usually in the conifers of higher elevations.
Most of our year round birds are feeder birds. Chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, various finches, and wintering sparrows frequent backyard feeders where they can get the high energy food they need. My feeders seem especially active when a storm is pending, or the temperatures are very low.
Go for a walk on the coldest day of the year. Every so often, uncover your ears and listen for a high, thin, buzzy, “zree” or “zee-zee-zee.” Then start looking carefully. These tiny, olive colored birds move quickly through the pines and spruces, fluttering wings, hanging upside down as they look for something in the pines and spruces to sustain them. If you are lucky, one may stay put long enough for you to focus your binoculars, if you have them along and can figure out how to keep them from fogging up when brought to your eyes and near your warm breath. If you are really lucky, you may even see the gold crest on top of the head. But the kinglets are too busy in their urgent task to linger more than a moment before moving on.
The winter survival adaptation of the kinglet is directly connected to the winter survival adaptation of the moth larvae on which it feeds. The kinglet is further aided by its bulky, insulating feathers, and by its habit of foraging from first light to last light and then settling beneath nearby protective brush and huddling for warmth.
And yet, the kinglet population holds its own, unlike so many species whose numbers are under stress. The kinglet begins nesting in early April, when weather in the northern forests can still be a very dicey and icey. Most songbirds in New England lay four to five eggs. In its tiny, insulated nest hung beneath the protection of evergreen branches, the kinglet lays eight to eleven eggs in a double layer.
A few years ago, amateur ornithologists in Minnesota discovered another secret to the survival of the kinglet. And that is, that while the male is busy feeding the young nestlings, the female is incubating a second clutch with just as many eggs. These very busy parents successfully fledge eighty percent of their young.
The diminutive Golden-crowned Kinglet experiences heavy mortality every winter; it survives by replacing its lost population every summer.
And yet, for all the starkness, and struggle, we see through our windows, there is life. Beneath the snow pack, there are tunnels and roads made by the voles. On a warm winter day, the birds burst into song and the bees fly. As impending Spring brings the thaw, the snow drops blossom, and bloom follows bloom. Mother Nature may not be benevolent, but she has an irresistible urge to life.
The winter landscape may often seem bleak and lifeless. But moving through the dormant green pine boughs, winter’s elf, the Golden-crowned Kinglet, calls “zee-zee-zee.” It is talking with its own about food, and the next stop, and shelter. And perhaps also, it is talking to us about life waiting to happen.
Note: Unfortunately, I have no photographs of the Golden-crowned Kinglet in winter. The last photo was taken in June on the Gaspe Peninsula when the kinglet was in the midst of its breeding season. The other photographs were taken in late October in Cape May during the song bird fall-out when both kinglets were common.