For the Birds Radio Program: Golden-crowned Kinglet

Original Air Date: Oct. 5, 1988

Golden-crowned Kinglets and little toddlers named Tommy make Laura think of Louis Armstrong and what a wonderful world this is.

Duration: 3′42″


One of the cheeriest sounds of autumn is so quiet and high- pitched that most people don’t even notice it–the seeping of Golden-crowned Kinglets. Their little grace notes sound a bit like the high-pitched call notes of the Black-capped Chickadee, except that kinglet notes invariably are heard in couplets or triplets:

(Recording of a Golden-crowned Kinglet)

Golden-crowned Kinglets are the fairy sprites of the north woods. Their gold and crimson crowns are as exotic as the ruby throat of a hummingbird. They’re almost as tiny as hummingbirds, too–only 3 1/4 inches long. Their weight during fall migration, when they’re as fat as they get, is a mere five and a half grams- -that’s one fifth of an ounce. My two-year-old son Tommy could sit on a scale and balance 2480 of them. Unlike hummingbirds, which frequently sit on branches, wires, or feed perches, kinglets virtually never stop flitting around–even during momentary rest periods, they flick their wings constantly, and their bright eyes and insatiable curiosity are less like hummingbirds than like like two-year-old children. Kinglets are easy to attract by “pishing”–that is, going “psh psh psh,” but most birders are easily frustrated by a kinglets’s utter inability to hold still, just as most grownups are frustrated by the infinite animation of a two-year-old.

This time of year, Golden-crowned Kinglets are abundant in the Northland. They don’t normally stay this far north for the winter, but they do often winter in southern Minnesota and Wisconsin, and virtually never go further south than central Texas. They eat insects just about exclusively–when adult flying bugs disappear for the season, they’re limited to whatever eggs, larvae, and pupae they can glean from crevices in tree bark. If that seems like mighty slim pickins to us, kinglets don’t mind a bit. Like toddlers, they take exuberant joy in the sheer act of living. And, like toddlers, kinglets have an inner sunshine that brightens even a dismal day. Over my years of birding, I’ve had two heart-stopping moments when Golden-crowned Kinglets left their wild world for a moment to alight right on my finger. The magic of a wild kinglet trustingly perched in my hands is as close as I’ve ever come to the magic of lullaby time with Tommy clutching my finger as he drifts into sleep.

Tommy won’t be two years old after tomorrow. The three candles on his cake are a promise of ever-expanding horizons. Like a kinglet, he has places to go far beyond my little world, and almost before I can blink, like a kinglet, he’ll be flitting exuberantly into his very own bright new world.

(Recording of Louis Armstrong “What a Wonderful World”)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”