Toughness in a Tiny Package: What I Learned From a Kinglet
The temperature had dropped to 7° F, and I was worried.
On winter walks, I always watch for one of my favorite birds—the ones with the charming name—Golden-crowned Kinglets. These little birds are very endearing and friendly. As they flutter around, they keep up a constant chatter with each other like tiny bells ringing.
In the coldest temperatures, how do they 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 day, the lake was iced over after an even chillier night. I was concerned—had the little birds gotten through it?
They're so small—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 quickly in the cold.
The next morning, I took a hike at the lake while I listened for them. Walking 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 coming very close to me 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, none the worse for the cold.
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, among other theories.
Well, it's a scientist named Bernd Heinrich who persevered until he discovered their 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 little bird. Heinrich later observed four birds huddled together, heads tucked in, with only their tails sticking out in the cold.
In this way, the little 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 strangely encouraging to discover another writer has the same quirks I do.
I may even join a writer's group in my area...perhaps in the spring when it's not so cold outside!
*Heinrich, Bernd. "Overnighting of Golden-crowned Kinglets During Winter." The Wilson Bulletin 115.2 (2003): 113-14, Print.