Toughness in a Tiny Package: What I Learned From a Kinglet
Updated: Mar 18
The temperature had dropped to 7° F, and I was concerned.
On winter walks, I always watch for one of my favorite birds—the ones with the charming name—Golden-crowned Kinglets. These birds are small, friendly, and endearing. As they flutter around, they keep up a constant chatter with each other like tiny bells ringing.
In the coldest temperatures, how does such a tiny bird survive? What I've learned about their clever strategy helped me as a writer. It's a story that was unknown until recent years.
On that bitingly cold morning, the lake was iced over after the temperature dipped to 7 degrees. I wondered if I'd still see the birds cheerfully chattering in the trees and bushes.
An article I read says to pick up a nickel and hold it in your palm: that's how much each bird weighs. Such tiny birds can lose body warmth in a hurry when it's cold.
I continued my hike while I listened for them. Around a curve in the trail, I finally heard the familiar sound I'd waited for—bells.
The tiny birds flitted from branch to branch, some almost touching my hand, but never staying still for long in their constant search for food. The little flock of birds looked just as cheery and active as always, as if the 7 degrees the night before hadn't bothered them at all.
Secrets of a Mini-Bird Revealed
How does a mini-bird stay warm? Some tales spoke of the Kinglets spending the night in old squirrels' nests. There were several theories, but no one knew exactly how they survived in freezing weather.
A scientist named Bernd Heinrich persevered until he discovered the true story . He made dozens of tries over the years to follow the Kinglets at night, only to see them disappear into the gathering darkness.
Then, one night he established a watching post "perched about 12 m up in a spruce tree." As it was getting dark, Heinrich saw "...a kinglet land on a twig near me."*
Like other birds, Kinglets fluff up their feathers as if putting on downy blankets and tuck their heads in for the night. However, that behavior alone would not allow them to survive the coldest nights.
What is the Kinglet's Biggest Secret?
From his own perch, Heinrich observed a second Kinglet arrive next to the first bird. "The two pressed closely together and then stopped moving."
When another called from a neighboring tree, the two original Kinglets flew over to join the third small bird. Heinrich later observed four birds huddled together, heads tucked in, with only their tails sticking out in the cold.
In this way, the Kinglets stay warm at night by banding together with a sense of community. Bigger birds have a larger body mass to keep warm—the Kinglets fool the cold by pretending to be one big bird in low temperatures.
What I've Learned From the Kinglets
When my writing time seems cold and things aren't working out according to the way I planned or dreamed, I think of these wise, tough little birds.
Talking to another writer, or reading a book about creativity, can make a big difference. Oftentimes, you'll come across a kindred spirit.
When I learn another writer has 12 "final" draft versions of her book that she keeps on editing, never completely satisfied, I know I'm not alone. Then, things don't seem so chilly and discouraging. It's encouraging to discover another writer has the same quirks I do.
I meet with a writing group of friends every Tuesday morning via Zoom. Their advice and encouragement makes a tremendous difference, Banding together is a good way to take off the chill along the way of a writing journey.
1. Heinrich, Bernd. "Overnighting of Golden-crowned Kinglets During Winter." The Wilson Bulletin 115.2 (2003): 113-14, Print.