By Keith Michael
I feed my first of the month stamped envelopes of bills into the big blue mouth of the mail box on the corner and, of course, jiggle its jaw (as my mother taught me) to be sure that my envelopes haven’t gotten stuck in its craw. Yes, I still pay bills with hand-written checks in envelopes with return addresses and stamps.
Millie seems to wince at the squeak squeak squeak that rusty mouth makes above her corgi head. Or maybe she’s just squinting at me as a heavyweight nor’easter punches down Washington Street. A canine friend has left its aromatic calling card at the base of the mailbox, so, in no time she’s forgotten about the aural distraction and is back deciphering the barcode of that other dog’s neighborhood identity.
Now I’m distracted as well—by a chorus of oddly similar “tsee tsee tsee” calls up above my head that seem to be bouncing around the branches; and then, one by one, I see a blur of phantoms streak along the street into the yellowing Honey Locust trees across the way. That “tsee tsee tsee” is the welcome autumn staccato of Golden-crowned Kinglets on their way from Canada to, perhaps, spend the winter with us here in the West Village. Or, this may be just another stopover before they head further south to a balmier clime.
Kinglets are one of our smallest bird species. Barely larger than a hummingbird, each weighs between a fifth and a third of an ounce. One could fold three or five of them into an envelope and send them through the mail with a single first-class Forever stamp! Think “one sheet of 8½ x 11 inch paper” and then, “That could be a Golden-crowned Kinglet.” They are jauntily named because they do, indeed, have a little golden yellow crown on the top of their heads which, when they are excited (or territorially defensive), they can raise like a Cardinal’s crest—like tipping their hats.
Getting a clear view of one takes a lot of patience and speed. (Tip: If you hear one, just stare up at the trees without moving your eyes. Then, notice any movement that happens around the edges of where you are looking.) Kinglets rarely stop moving as they careen from branch to branch, leaf to leaf, tree to tree. The catalogue of edible tidbits that they glean from every surface and out of the air seems too lengthy, frankly, to catalogue. How do they not wear themselves out? And yet, they can keep going like that, each a self-winding toy, hour after hour, block after block.
They do have a compatriot in teeny tinyness: the Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Equally miniscule, the RCKI—their American Ornithological Union (AOU) four-letter code—is distinguished by, you guessed it, a ruby-colored crown rather than a golden one. This other peripatetic charmer tends to be much more reserved in displaying its namesake (though its call is a much more elaborate chortling of musical declensions). Mostly, one sees it as an olive-colored schmear in the tops of trees. Even in good light, the ruby crown might only be a spray of red feathers peeking out from the top of its head. Look and listen. Fast!
For me, one of the greatest mysteries (and, apparently, from what I’ve read, a conundrum to many others as well) is how these diminutive sprites survive the brutal winter temperatures of the far north. Not all of them migrate. Some “stick it out!” I recall having read somewhere (though I haven’t been able to re-locate the source) that 30-40 of these feathered micro-furnaces have been discovered snuggled together within the protection of a tree cavity during a sub-zero night in Alaska. As a scientific discovery, I recall thinking as I read it, “Now how did you observe that remarkable phenomenon?”
The mysteries intrigue me. It’s sometimes better not to know the answer. Just be amazed and enthralled.
While I’ve been thinking about all of this Millie has long since pulled me along her predestined morning route toward home. A jane-o-lantern with fetchingly carved curls momentarily startles her from a stoop.
Breakfast and coffee await.
For more information about New York City WILD! nature outings, birding, photographs, or books, visit keithmichaelnyc.com or follow Instagram @newyorkcitywild