Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Golden-crowned Kinglet in Winter - also the Night-time Roosts of Some Winter Residents

The tiny Golden-crowned Kinglet - one of our winter resident birds

Currently at the nature preserve, we are down to just the winter hearty birds. These are the species that are best adapted to survive our potentially harsh winter weather. One look at a Black-capped Chickadee or a Golden-crowned Kinglet and you wouldn’t think that they were tough enough to handle winter, but in fact, they’re about as tough as birds can be. They can put up with extremely low temperatures as well as months of sleet, snow and driving winds.
The Black-capped Chickadee is an extermely hearty bird
The body temperature maintained by these tiny songbirds is actually warmer than our own. They have a high metabolism and require a great amount of calories in order to maintain that heat and their active lifestyles. Also, their insulating feathers are amazingly efficient at retaining body heat.
The White-breasted Nuthatch, like the chickadee, eats seeds as well as insect prey
A Golden-crowned Kinglet, which is barely larger than a hummingbird and weighs about as much as 2 pennies, must eat around 3 times their own body weight each wintery day. This means constantly foraging for dormant insects –primarily, tiny inch-worms. Their bills are like small tweezers which are designed to pick up creatures that are almost too small for us to see.
The kinglet is a strict carnivore and must constantly forage for insects
The chickadees are probably the easiest birds to find in the winter woods; they are boisterous and noisy. They hang out in family groups of 5 to 10 –sometimes more. Often they travel around with an entourage of other bird species. Fellow travelers will often include titmice, woodpeckers, nuthatches, creepers and the Golden-crowned Kinglet.
The well camouflaged  Brown Creeper is another seldom seen winter resident
Usually keeping in mid-tree levels, the kinglets are not as gregarious as the chickadees, and so they are often missed by casual observers. The tiny kinglets nervously flit from branch to branch –seldom stopping for more than a second –and rarely ever perching during the day. They emit very high trilled notes which are often given in 3s. These whisper-like calls make it sound like they are about to impart some secret –“pssst ….pssst ….pssst” (The secret is that the kinglets are nearby.) These fairly distinctive notes and can only be mistaken for the single high note of the Brown Creeper, which is often a fellow forager in the chickadee’s mixed flock.
When excited, the Golden-crowned Kinglet will flash his bright orange crown feathers
Perhaps at night these birds take refuge from the cold in tree cavities. I’m not sure if anyone knows this for sure. I have seen some winter resident birds taking refuge from the cold in woodpecker holes and bird houses, but not the kinglet. Recently, a Downy Woodpecker has been using one of our Bluebird Boxes as his nighttime roost.  The bird house is located pretty close to one of our feeding stations –so breakfast is close at hand for that little guy.
A Downy Woodpecker peaks out of her winter roosting box
I suspect that most of these winter birds will spend the night perched on a secluded branch somewhere where they are partially protected from the elements. If they did all spend the night in tree cavities, I would think that we’d see them flying out of these places in the early morning hours more than we actually do.
Cedar Waxwings are also winter residents 
I remember one night, coming upon a small group of Cedar Waxings perched on the branch of a maple tree. All were apparently fast asleep. I marked the spot and returned to watch them as dawn approached. Sure enough at the very first break of light, the birds woke up and flew away into the dark morning.
Every winter some Robins will remain at the nature preserve - they feed on berries and crab apples
Some literature sites that birds, even of different species, will sometimes share night-time roosting holes, where they presumably benefit from each other’s body heat. Perhaps they even share sentinel duties. As I shared in my last post, tree cavities and bird houses are not always safe from predators. One recent inspection of a bird house indicated that a roosting Bluebird was nabbed from the house and consumed right there on the roof. All that was left were some blue feathers. The culprit was probably an ermine that had been recently seen hunting nearby.  

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