Photo by Kenneth Cole Schneider
By Abby West
We’ve camped at Enchanted Rock at least once every year for the past ten years. Except this time, I’d been paying attention to birds for the better part of a year and every glimpse of an unfamiliar bird sent me feverishly thumbing through my David Sibley book I carried everywhere (it is way too hefty to be considered a field guide). This particular hike, I left my bird book back at camp, having snuck away by myself to the opposite side of the dome, escaping from the unrelenting noise of our two boys who felt the pressing need to narrate every thought that came into their head. Satisfied that I was finally surrounded by peace and quiet, I tucked myself under the canopy of a shrubby oak tree. The sweet relief of total silence was immediately pierced through with high-pitched bird chatter, and a little drab bird fluttered to the branch a couple feet in front of my face, twitching relentlessly. Annoyed, I did my best to ignore him. He flicked his tail, then his wings, then his tail and looking straight at me, a flash of firetruck red flashed on his forehead just for an instant. I blinked hard, wondering if I had just imagined that momentary glint of color. My eyes followed his movements as he hopped from shrub to shrub; he wasn’t hard to spot considering he was in constant motion, reminding me distinctly of my four year old who embodies very much the same quality. Again, the startling flash of red.
Satisfied with this curious encounter, I mosied back to camp and he followed me the whole way. I soon learned he was a Ruby-Crowned Kinglet, likely recently having flown all the way from Canada where they are known to breed in boreal forests during the summer. Females can lay up to their body weight in eggs. In summer, they migrate south all over the United States, arriving in Texas mid-September and heading back north around May. Apparently science says that males flicker their bright red crests when seeking a mate or when agitated– but I say they do it whenever they please, perhaps just for attention or because they like seeing human’s eyes widen in response.
Despite their restless motion, metabolic studies on these tiny birds have found that they consume a whopping 10 calories a day, eating many things we tend to grimace at: spiders, wasps, psuedo-scorpions, poison ivy berries (like it or not, it’s a beneficial plant!) Every single night, they lose 10% of their body weight– more on hot nights, due to evaporation. Then over the course of the next day, they gain it back. Astoundingly, they can lose up to 30% of their body weight without suffering any physical harm.
Now that I’ve learned to put a name to this twitchy little bird, I see them on almost every hike I go on in the fall, and they always remind me of that first encounter. Seeking tranquility and silence, this bird reminded me that nature doesn’t only exist in some kind of romanticized vacuum, separate from our human experience. Noisiness, restlessness, agitation are a part of the deal too. Whether that’s coming the squeals from my own excited children or from the chattering little birds spying on us, it all belongs.
What It’s Like to Be a Bird by David Allen Sibley