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Birdspotting: Sugar cubes

From the Buurtbrief (Neighborhood newsletter) April 2023 by Pascal

illustration: Harm

"YES! Come now! Look, a goldcrest! No, a firecrest!" shouts my friend from the living room.

I startle up and run downstairs, and she points out a little bird moving quickly through the yew of our backside neighbours. Wanting to get a better look, I fetch my binoculars from the car and run up the stairs to my daughter's bedroom for a better view, but I’m too late...a mistake many a birder makes, immediately reaching for the equipment instead of quietly watching first.

I hear you thinking: a goldcrest, I've never heard of one, let alone seen one.

That is not so surprising, the firecrest and the goldcrest are the smallest birds we can encounter in Europe. Altogether, from beak tip to tail tip they are only about 8 to 9 cm tall and weigh no more than 5 grams, which is about as heavy as a sugar cube.

60 years ago, a bird lover from the Randstad would have had to travel to South Limburg to see a firecrest, but those times are thankfully behind us. We can now see the bird in almost the entire country. The firecrest has been on the rise from central Europe in recent decades, due to the large-scale planting of spruce forest.

Goldcrests and firecrests are mostly moss green and have a crest. In a female goldcrest and firecrest this is yellow, in a male it is orange with yellow, and to make it even more interesting, the male firecrest has an orange crest. The easiest distinction between the two species is the absence of a white and black stripe in the eye of the goldcrest.

If you get to see one at all—and it's not that easy, because apart from being tiny, they are also very lightning fast, and in the breeding season they lead a hidden existence high up in the trees, preferably conifers.

The word gold in the bird’s name is derived from the golden-yellow crest the bird wears on its head. Another explanation is the popular belief that the bird would be designated as the "king of birds" due to its golden yellow crown, to this fits its scientific name Regulus, meaning royal. Also Scandinavian names such as Kungsfagel and Fuglekonge—literally bird king—refer to this.

Every year, several tens of thousands of goldcrests and thousands of firecrests spend the winter in our country, which is therefore also the time you are most likely to see them. Where they come from is still largely a mystery. Dutch firecrests migrate to south-western Europe, while goldcrests stay in the Netherlands.

It’s a wonder that such a tiny creature of just 9 cm and 5.5 grams is able to travel thousands of kilometers. And perhaps it is an even greater miracle that it appears right in front of your nose in your backyard.

The firecrest symbolises inner strength and perseverance, it is the bringer of fire and movement, "Time to walk in your power, time to burn everything that is holding you back and purify yourself for a new stage of life," I read in an article on the internet. That seems a rather heavy burden for such a small creature but it does indicate that people ascribe great qualities to the little bird.

I do understand my fascination with the little creature every time I see one; so preoccupied with itself and so wholly unconcerned with what we think of it.

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