By Charlotte Owen
Winter is the most challenging season for our garden birds. When the weather is at its worst, each 24-hour period becomes a battle for survival - cramming in as many calories as possible during the daylight hours to build up the vital fat reserves required to see them through the long, cold nights.
The smaller the bird, the greater the challenge and the tiny goldcrest is the smallest of them all – so small that it has been referred to as a feathered atom. Weighing in at just six grams, which is about the same as a ten pence coin, a goldcrest can lose up to 20% of its bodyweight overnight just keeping warm, even huddled together in a communal roost - and when you don’t have much to lose in the first place, every calorie counts. It’s remarkable that these diminutive creatures can survive the cold at all but even more impressive to think that our resident birds are joined each winter by distant relatives from as far afield as Russia, making an epic flight of thousands of miles and crossing the North Sea to boot. This was a feat so unbelievable that early observers believed goldcrests must hitch a ride among the feathers of migrating woodcock, which arrived here at about the same time.
One advantage of being so small is reaching the places that bigger birds can’t, and delicate goldcrests will often perch right at the tips of the flimsiest branches in their constant quest for food. Deep furrows on the soles of their feet help them grip onto individual pine needles as they flit through the treetops, seeking out springtails and spiders as well as overwintering cocoons and caterpillars. Such miniature morsels are often overlooked by their competitors but make a perfect meal for such a tiny bird, as long as they can find plenty of them. Goldcrests will often visit gardens but tend to ignore seed feeders, occasionally pecking at a fat ball if times are really tough. The bird table can be a life-saver for a range of other small birds though and will be hive of activity on a frosty morning.