The only regal thing about the golden-crowned kinglet is the
crest of yellow-orange feathers atop its head. Everything else
about this speck of a songbird's appearance and behavior would make
any proper monarch frown. It's half the size of a black-capped
chickadee yet twice as energetic: a gregarious and kinetic bird
wrapped in unassuming olive-gray plumage. Yet this tiny creature
faces head-on winters that animals fifteen thousand times its size
(we're looking at you, black bears) hide from.
Winter survival for animals in the Northeast often involves
setting their metabolisms to "simmer" and waiting out the coldest
months in a state of hibernation (in the case of many mammals) or
some equivalent torpor (most reptiles, insects, amphibians.) In the
most dramatic cases (wood frogs, woolly-bear caterpillars), the
animals simply freeze solid and thaw in spring. Songbirds, given
the luxury of flight, often simply flee.
The golden-crowned kinglet - despite weighing barely more than a
quarter with a length of three-to-four inches, half of that being
tail - uses none of the above tricks. When most of our forests
hunker down, enter stasis, the kinglet kicks its frenetic lifestyle
into high gear.
It has to.
Unlike larger year-round songbirds who huddle up, puff their
feathers, tuck in their heads, and become spheres of conversed
energy, the tiny golden-crowned kinglet takes no such breaks. Its
metabolism runs hot, even for a bird. Accordingly, the kinglet
responds to winter's cold by going hyperactive.
You'd be forgiven for expecting kinglets to have a varied diet
of seeds and other foodstuffs that are - with a bit of effort -
available in winter. This is, after all, how small birds like
chickadees and titmice get by. The catch is that golden-crowned
kinglets are almost exclusively insectivores. Oh, they might eat
tiny bit of plant matter in winter, but the vast majority of their
diet remains soft-bodied arthropods like mites, caterpillars, and
So if you notice that winter flocks of kinglets seem a bit
manic, it's because they spend literally the entire day foraging.
They're not flitting about for the sheer joy of it; every brief
hover near the tip of a branch is a scan for the sparse insect food
that is available in winter, an act of purest necessity.
Eventually, no matter how early they rise, daylight ends.
Temperatures drop. Even this brassy bird needs to put on the breaks
for a winter's night. And this is where things get mysterious.
Ornithologists agree that the kinglet simply doesn't have enough
capacity for energy storage to make it through the night unaided,
no matter how many mites it devours. And particularly cold nights
can be a death sentence that wipes out entire micro-populations.
But, on balance, they do survive. Not only are they common across
North America, their populations are of least concern to
Theories on how these birds make it through the winter night
conflict. Some argue that they must lower their metabolism and go
into controlled hypothermia to survive the night, but no one has
ever documented them doing so. Some populations seek shelter in
abandoned squirrel nests, but despite an intensive study in Maine,
naturalist Bernd Heinrich couldn't find any evidence of his
kinglets doing the same. Some huddle together in small groups in
the dense branches of conifers, so many Lilliputian furnaces
keeping each other warm. On the whole, though, the night is a dark
spot in our knowledge of golden-crowed kinglets.
What we do know about the golden-crowned kinglet's winter
lifestyle is nothing short of astonishing. Here's a bird that
breaks all the rules of winter survival, and despite heavy
attrition, continues to prosper.
It may have gotten its regal name from a quick glance at its
sun-bright crest, but make no mistake: winter's little king has
earned its crown.
Kenrick Vezina works for the Genetic
Literacy Project and is a freelance writer, naturalist, and
raconteur based in the Greater Boston area. The Outside Story is
assigned and edited by Northern Woodlands magazine and sponsored by
the Wellborn Ecology Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation: