For the Birds: Many sturdy birds from which to choose

Here is the latest For the Birds column, which runs in several New England newspapers …

Photo by Chris Bosak
A ruby-crowned kinglet inspects sedum for food in New England, fall 2019.

I was recently interviewed about birds and bird population trends by radio show host John McGauley of WKBK.

John had a lot of interesting questions and, following the interview, one in particular stood out in my mind. He asked: “What are the more sturdy birds? Are there any that are especially hardy and durable?”

My on-the-spot answer was hawks and other large raptors. While hawks are indeed large and strong and fierce, I wish I had would have responded differently. All birds, large and small, are hardy and durable. It would have sounded like a wishy-washy answer, but I could have explained it.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds, weighing in at about three grams and measuring a mere three inches, are amazingly resilient in their migration. The hummingbirds that breed in New England fly more than 2,000 miles to Mexico or Central America each fall — then return to us each spring.

Part of that arduous journey includes a non-stop flight of about 500 miles over the Gulf of Mexico. It takes about 20 rest-free hours to make that trip. I can barely stay awake for 16 hours straight, let alone trying to keep moving for that long.

Yes, the ruby-throated hummingbird would have been a good candidate for a “sturdy bird,” despite its colorful and dainty appearance.

I like to keep my columns focused on New England, but penguins would have been another good answer. The penguin movies that came out a few years ago shed light on the brutal conditions they endure in Antarctica. They are, of course, well suited for that weather, but still.

Or, how about frigate birds or albatrosses? They can fly or soar for months on end. An albatross can travel 10,000 miles without stopping. Think about that for a minute.

Coming back to New England, I was reminded of another sturdy bird while I did some yard work the other day. A ruby-crowned kinglet flitted among the sedum, a tough plant that blooms well into fall. I looked around the yard and three or four other kinglets were moving among the trees and bushes.

Hummingbirds get the majority of attention as a tiny bird that accomplishes great things. I sang their praises myself a few paragraphs ago. The attention is deserved as they are New England’s smallest bird. Kinglets, however, are an often overlooked tiny bird that beats the odds.

Kinglets are not that much larger than hummingbirds, having them beat by only a half-inch or so, depending on the individual birds. Kinglets are much bulkier and the difference in weight is more significant. But that’s compared to a hummingbird. By any other standard, kinglets are tiny little things. Even chickadees make kinglets look small.

That doesn’t mean kinglets are delicate. Not by any stretch. Both New England kinglet species — ruby-crowned and golden-crowned — breed in Canada and northern New England. We see kinglets in the middle and southern parts of New England in the fall and spring.

Kinglets are mostly short-distance migrants. Some golden-crowned kinglets remain up north throughout winter. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, golden-crowned kinglets “routinely winter in areas where nighttime temperatures can fall below negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Sturdy enough for you? It certainly is for me. I only wish I had remembered that during the interview so I could have given kinglets their due.

The list of sturdy birds can go on and on. Pretty much any bird can be singled out and shown to be sturdy. I’m pretty sure that’s one of the reasons we love birds so much. Who doesn’t like something with superpowers?

If you have a good candidate for a sturdy bird, drop me a line at birdsofnewengland@gmail.com.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Golden-crowned Kinglet rests on a branch in Selleck’s/Dunlap Woods in Darien in Nov. 2013.

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