For the Birds Radio Program: Golden-crowned Kinglet
When March eases into April and weather can be spring-like one day and wintry the next, we are cheered but not surprised to see our first geese, ducks, robins, grackles, and red-winged blackbirds—strong, robust species that can readily if not easily survive blizzards and ice storms. But when the temperature dips to 12 degrees and we’re shivering in our boots, it’s a little disconcerting to see the tiniest songbird in North America, the Golden-crowned Kinglet, flitting about as comfortably as the hugest goose.
The Golden-crowned Kinglet weighs 6.2 grams– just a trace heavier than an American quarter. But unlike a quarter, a kinglet doesn’t feel ice cold to the touch in frigid weather. Its feet are cold—I know this for a fact because one frosty morning when we were living in Madison, Wisconsin, a Golden-crowned Kinglet alighted on my finger for a glorious few seconds. I don’t think it did it out of friendliness—it didn’t look at my face at all. But it was flitting from branch to branch and apparently mistook my outstretched arm for a tree limb, and I got to feel those cold little toes pressing into my finger. Like other birds, kinglets have a heat exchange system in their legs so blood returning to the body from the feet is heated by blood flowing to the feet. But under the feathers, a kinglet’s body temperature runs about 104 degrees—even when the air temperature is double digits below zero. They come with excellent down underwear and a high metabolism, but they aren’t quite as hardy as one could wish—that’s why they generally produce two broods of babies every summer, and each brood has 8 to 9 babies, but the number of kinglets doesn’t go up.
Kinglets seem to be rather nearsighted, focusing their vision on every tiny crevice within range of their tiny beak in search of insects. In winter, most of their supply is in the form of eggs and pupae, making them even trickier to spot than in warmer weather when movement helps give them away. Concentrating on close details rather than on more distant objects is probably why the one alighted on me. When it landed on my finger I froze, but with no little bugs hiding in the crevices of my knuckles, it didn’t take more than a few seconds for the kinglet to realize that as a tree, I wasn’t exactly Lady Bountiful. It moved on, so did I, and I suspect the memory stuck in only one of our heads. But knowing that the feeling wasn’t mutual didn’t diminish the loveliness or magic of the experience for me.
The world will never be overrun with Golden-crowned Kinglets—the very idea of too many of them seems impossible to imagine—but the species is doing just peachy right now. And early in the spring when they make their exuberant high-pitched calls and suddenly dart into view, flicking their wings incessantly, their golden crowns aglow, they fill our eyes, be they nearsighted, farsighted, astigmatic, or 20/20, with a lovely view into one of the genuine miracles flitting about on our little planet.