The spring is on the verge of tumbling into the fields in London. The first daffodils nod approving heads at each other by pathsides, and the sun visits enough to soften the still-sharp afternoons. And through a shrub the goldcrest is making his hopping path, paushing, examining his surroundings, then flapping onto the next branch. European folklore calls him the king of birds for his dandelion-bright crown and for being the smallest of the birds: one legend by Pliny has him triumphing in a competition for the title by emerging at the last moment from a safe hiding spot underneath an exhausted eagle’s wings.
Their history is one of travelling. Suffolk fisherman recount tales of migrating individuals landing on the rigging of herring boats in the North Sea, earning them two more names: “herring spink” and “tot o’er seas”. They travel each year from England to Scandinavia and back again, a journey denied by early ornithologists who wondered at the capacity of an 8 cm-long creature to complete such a trip, and instead posited that they hitched rides of larger woodcock or short-eared owls.
Every winter they die in huge numbers, falling victim to the cold when their fat is not enough to metabolize warmth at night. Every spring, they come back again.