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Published: Sunday, 2/28/2010

Toledo Magazine: The amazing crowned Kinglets

BY STEVE POLLICK AND JEFF BASTING

Hail to the “little kings,” Regulus satrapa and Regulus calendula — the golden-crowned kinglet and ruby-crowned kinglet, respectively.

Such a royal salute for these, among the tiniest of perching birds, is well-earned, especially when considering the slightly smaller of the two cousins, the golden-crowned, and how it manages to survive a winter in the north.

Only some hummingbirds are smaller than kinglets, which weigh only as much as two pennies and stretch to just four inches and a tad.

Without their fluff of feathers, the end of your thumb would cover their bodies to the tips of the tiny beaks.

Such diminutive size augers against survival in the harsh conditions of northern winters, yet the golden-crowned defies the odds — if it does everything right.

Its rubycrowned cousin copes with winter by migrating to the southern United States and Mexico, as do some golden-crowned kinglets.

But those that choose to stay have their work cut out for them.

Most notably, they have to eat — three times their body-weight every day — and they are insect-eaters.

Throughout the winter they are practically a bite or two away from death all the time.

“I think it's amazing that such a tiny bird, which eats insects, can winter in such northerly latitudes,” said John Sawvel, a local naturalist and birder.

“In the Toledo area, golden- crowned kinglets are a three-season bird.

” Mr. Sawvel is program coordinator for the Ohio Young Birders Club, an arm of the Oak Harbor-based Black Swamp Bird Observatory.

He has compiled the status report on the golden-crowned kinglet for the Ohio Winter Bird Atlas.

“They are common during spring and fall migrations, and they usually are found in winter.

Summer nesters are rare in our area.

But this common bird is easily overlooked because of its tiny size; fast, acrobatic movements, and weak, high-pitched song.

“Listening for its ‘see-see-see' call note probably is the best way to locate it.

Hearing the ‘see-see-see' of a golden-crowned kinglet in February is a fine sighting.

” Part of the reason for that is that a kinglet in February is a very hardy and lucky survivor.

Many of its overwintering brethren no doubt have succumbed to insufficient food or exposure.

Bernd Heinrich, a University of Vermont biologist who has long studied kinglets in winter, notes that the species loses 87 percent of its population every year.

Only highly evolved and successful reproduction — involving stacked eggs in a baseball-sized nest and rapid renesting for a second crop of young — saves the species by offsetting the mammoth losses.

“Given its minute, two-penny weight [5 to 6 grams], how such an individual could survive the energy crunch on a cold, 16-hour-long winter night is an unimaginable marvel from our human perspective — it defies physics and physiology,” Mr. Heinrich wrote in his fascinating, beautifully written 2003 book, Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival.

The biologist notes: “Kinglets are as close to an annual bird as any bird gets.

” He struggled through several Maine winters, working from a cabin retreat, to discover what possible insects could feed kinglets in the deadly cold, sometimes to minus-30 degrees.

He and his students ultimately found that the commonly held food, springtails or “snow fleas,” indeed were not kinglet food.

Instead they isolated the real meal deal — an “inchworm,” a caterpillar of the one-spotted Variant moth, a morsel so tiny it almost gets lost amid fallen spruce needles.

“They are constantly feeding [in winter] to survive the next hour, the next day,” said Toledo's Mr. Sawvel.

“I look at a golden-crowned kinglet — a tiny little bird.

You see it on a cold winter's day and you wonder, ‘how the heck can this bird survive?' ” adds Tom Kemp, a noted birder-naturalist from Bowling Green.

Mr. Kemp is credited with discovering in 1991 the first reported golden-crowned kinglet nest in Ohio, in a Norway spruce stand in the Maumee State Forest in western Lucas County.

The first breeding pair reported in Ohio was in Columbiana County in 1962-63.

“We think at least a few of them nest here every year.

It's a matter of going out and finding them.

” That, it turns out, is not a walk in the park, so to say.

Golden-crowned kinglets typically nest 50 feet up in a spruce, weaving a baseball- sized, cuplike nest that is tucked into the bottom side of a spruce limb close to the trunk.

Their ruby-crowned cousins are not known to nest here.

The goldencrowned nesting range has edged south from northern boreal forests, Mr. Kemp said, because of expanded ornamental plantings of spruce.

A leader in the Grand Rapids-Waterville and Toledo Area Christmas bird counts, the naturalist notes that the golden-crowned almost always is one of the last species sighted on a count-day, for of necessity they feed right until dark.

“They're neat, hardy little birds.

They're tough.

” How kinglets survive the winter night is another question that challenges field researchers such as Mr. Heinrich.

For one thing, they apparently huddle in small groups for warmth, in whatever cozy little cocoon of cover they can find at dark.

But much remains to be learned about this feisty little bird.

The New England biologist devotes no less than three chapters of Winter World to the golden-crowned and never runs short of wonder for them: “When I'm in the warmth of my cabin and hear gusts of wind outside that moan through the woods and shake my cabin on a wintry night, I will continue to marvel at and wonder how the little featherpuffs are faring.

They defy the odds and the laws of physics, and prove that the fabulous is possible.

” Contact Steve Pollick at: spollick@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.



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