Golden-crowned Kinglet

January 25th, 2020: Still raining…

Well, the forecast said it wouldn’t be raining for a couple of hours today. This would mark the first time in about a week, so I planned to head out! Of course, it did actually rain during those couple of hours. But this is Vancouver: one cannot afford to wait for a sunny day if one wishes to do anything at all…

So I walked to Queen Elizabeth Park in the rain. QE Park is my “patch” in that it’s only about a 20 minute walk from my apartment and it’s a nice green hill that the birds seem to like (especially in the spring).

Looking out over the north lawn and some geese at Queen Elizabeth Park
Looking out over the north lawn and some geese at Queen Elizabeth Park

It was the middle of the afternoon (and rainy) so the birds were pretty quiet. Even after walking pretty much the whole park–hitting all the different microhabitats and zigzagging just about everywhere–I’d somehow only seen 15 species (eBird list).

Mallard and American Wigeon in the upper (more northerly) pond at QE Park
Mallard and American Wigeon in the upper (more northerly) pond at QE Park

There were tons of Mallard, Canada Goose, and a couple small flocks of American Wigeon enjoying the ponds and well-soaked lawns. But one of the most numerous passerines today were Golden-crowned Kinglets.

The larger of two southerly ponds at QE Park
The larger of two southerly ponds at QE Park

Golden-crowned Kinglets are one of the shortest (beak-to-tail) of any passerine in North America. On average, they weigh only a little more than Bushtits and Black-tailed Gnatcatchers. These tiny balls of energy flit about continuously, gleaning tiny bugs from shrubs and trees just to keep that metabolism moving. They prefer to nest in Boreal and spruce-fir forests and, despite their size, live regularly in areas that hit -40C! They even have a tiny, single feather that covers each little nostril!

The smaller of the two southerly ponds at QE Park
The smaller of the two southerly ponds at QE Park

Their namesake is a bright yellow tuft of feathers on the top of their head. Males have a particularly striking orange-yellow colouring toward the hindcrown that they raise to impress the ladies. It’s tough to see this unless it’s erect though (honestly, that’s the correct term), so distinguishing between males and females is particularly tough.

A female Golden-crowned Kinglet

One of the most challenging things about Golden-crowned Kinglets for many birders though is just hearing them. Their incredibly quiet chirps are often tough to hear, especially through tree limbs. Many of their contact calls are also easy to lose entirely in the wind or rain, or indeed to mistake for a Brown Creeper or Chestnut-backed Chickadee (with whom they often travel in mixed flocks).

Here are some Golden-crowned Kinglet contact calls from Washington, mixed with Chestnut-backed Chickadee (from Xeno-Canto). In this one, you can hear short chips and the three-note call, alongside the squeakier Chestnut-backed Chickadee.

Assuming they’re not willing to help you out by singing (much easier to ID), you’ll want to listen for the high, thin, tight trill notes they produce, often three in quick succession.

Here’s an amplified version of the Golden-crowned Kinglet’s three-note trill call (also from Xeno-Canto).
And here’s a Golden-crowned Kinglet song from Colorado. It’s the loudest, highest thing near the beginning; a series of flat, clear, single pitches that accelerate rhythmically before culminating in a brief “warble” at the end (from Xeno-Canto). There are lots of other birds in this one. Recognize any?

Regardless of what sounds they decide to make, I have many great birding friends who’ve found they’ve lost (or mostly lost) this call. Out west, this is likely the first bird call to go with typical age-related hearing loss. Out east, there are prairie sparrows you’re more likely to lose first (Grasshopper Sparrow and LeConte’s Sparrow in particular).

A Grasshopper Sparrow song from Utah (from Xeno-Canto). And did you hear that Yellow-headed Blackbird at the end (it’s the thing that sounds like someone’s strangling a cat)?

I’ll just take a moment to note that hearing loss in unavoidable with age. And there’s nothing be ashamed of. Everyone has it. Some people more than others. It saddens me a little that so few people take the time (and, I realize, money) to get a hearing aid that will help them enjoy so much of the world so much longer. As a glasses wearer–and someone who’ll get a hearing aid ASAP when I notice anything amiss or someone tells me I’m not hearing like I used to–I’m a little surprised at the resistance to them in general. I think there’s still some stigma out there, but I’m not sure since I’m not someone who’s encountering it. In any case, if you’re thinking about getting a hearing aid: there’s no time like the present! =)

The tech is pretty astounding now and there’s a lot of research to show that the sooner you get an aid, the more hearing you hang on to. (Basically, your brain loses pathways to encoding audio that you can’t get back if you wait too long; it’s different from eyesight in that way.)

There’s also a clear consensus (with tons of good science) and reporting on the dangers of hearing loss–even normal, age-related hearing loss–and its relationship to dementia and general cognitive decline. Here’s one particularly compelling NYT article on the topic (and another). And here’s a compelling take on getting around the stigma. And finally, a cool, recent AI breakthrough in hearing aid tech.

Maybe it’s because I’m a musician too, but I just love listening to birdsong so much. I literally find myself standing alone in the woods sometimes, just listening, and grinning. I think I probably look more than a little silly… I’m not looking forward to losing even a small amount of that woodland music. But when that happens, I’ll be excited to get an aid that can bring some or all of that music back.

Golden-crowned Kinglet
Golden-crowned Kinglet

I found myself thinking a lot about this while on my birding walk today. I know I’ll lose those Golden-crowned Kinglet calls someday. But for now, I love hearing those little guys flash about in the brush…even in the rain!

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