Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Ruby-crowned Kinglets: Wanted ALIVE not DEAD!

Ruby-crowned Kinglet placed on bed of leaves
Go ahead, ask yourself: how many times have you seen a dead bird on the ground, not counting rotting gull carcasses on the seashore? All of us have seen evidence of death and mayhem in the bird world - feathers scattered about an area, raided nests fallen to earth, and egg shells lying broken on the ground. But how many times, I'll ask again, have you seen a dead bird?

In recent memory, I can only count a grand total of two dead birds prior to the Kinglet "sightings" - some kind of Hawk, lying belly-up, gutted, in a rocky ravine above Cascade Falls in Marin County; and a Varied Thrush, neck mangled, found expired in a back area of Codornices Park in Berkeley. Which makes the current occurrence, on consecutive days, in the same neighborhood, of coming upon not one, but TWO dead birds, very odd! Crazier still, both dead birds happened to be Ruby-crowned Kinglets! (What? You don't think this is odd and crazy?)

Kinglet found on street near curb on Indian Rock Avenue
As it happens, I came upon both dead birds in the same neighborhood, each time overlooking their small corpses until pointed out, and both were lying in the street close to the curb. Had anyone else noticed? Or cared? After all, the unnoticed passing of a tiny bird must rate among the most insignificant of events in anyone's life. Well, apart from being fascinated, I cared, stopping both times to inspect, examine and scrutinize before reverently transposing their lifeless bodies to a patch of earth and covering them in a burial shroud of leaves and sticks.

Varied Thrush found belly up dead in Codornices Park
The frenetic tree and bush hopper is a hard little cuss to pin down - in the sense of being able to appreciate a sustained moment of observation, or being capable of snapping a half-way decent photograph (with only half-way decent equipment). Owing to the furtive and fast-twitch activity of the Kinglet, I've managed to accomplish the feat just a couple of times, and certainly never once capturing a good shot of him flaring his ruby soul patch atop his head. Long in pursuit of the "perfect" photograph of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, I finally scored! Stinging irony, it's not exactly the way I would have envisioned capturing the birdworthy image.
Hawk mystery death in creek bed, Marin County
Now, what set of circumstances would have caused two birds of the same feather to die within a day or maybe within an hour of one another and in the same neighborhood? The next day, hiking Blue Gum Trail in Tilden Nature Area, I meet Phyllis, an avid birder, and tell her my story. Impressed and stumped, she mulls it over for a few seconds, then suggests they might be casualties of the larger flock flying over - up to millions - and somehow, perhaps, two among them were attacked, taken down, by a small urban forest hawk. Good a guess as any, I'd say. Phyllis also eliminates freezing to death as a cause, since we'd see many more of their frozen bodies pasted to the ground, wouldn't we? Although it did drop to a low of 36, birds only freeze to death when it's below freezing, don't they? And some survive to minus forty, like the hardy cousin, the Golden-crowned Kinglet.

Second Kinglet found in street next day
Which spurs the thought: what if they were flying high overhead and it was below freezing, and these two succumbed. In this scenario, many more likely would have succumbed, but they fell from the the sky in inaccessible and hidden places and/or were quickly eaten by scavenging animals. Which begs the question: why weren't these two Kinglets snatched up and eaten?

I'm willing to chalk it all up to being one big coincidence: two birds, same species, found dead in the street near the curb in the same neighborhood within a day of each other. And my happening to be there. Okay, yeah, let's go with coincidence, because nothing else accounts for the incident.

Another view
But something has to go on their non-existent death certificates. How did the poor little Kinglets die?

Did they freeze to death?

Did they perish from some disease or virus?

Did they inhale something, like toxic wood smoke from a chimney while roosting overnight, or barbecue lighter fuel?

Did a stealthy cat pounce and kill them?

I don't think it's possible to know without performing a real autopsy. The pathetic forensic examination I conducted revealed an absence of evidence of bite marks, gashes, mangled body parts, and the like, so it's anyone's guess. Or am I overlooking the painfully obvious?

RIP little birds.