Tiny kinglets brighten  the bleakest of seasons

Photo from Pixabay.com • Only the male ruby-crowned kinglet shows the red crown patch. In almost every other way, females are identical in appearance.

On one of our recent frosty mornings, the chickadees, the wrens, the titmice and other small birds were chattering and chirping in tree branches around my feeders. As I paused a moment to watch their antics, I noticed a tiny grayish bird that flashed a patch of ruby red feathers as it flitted among the branches.

The visitor turned out to be a ruby-crowned kinglet, one of North America’s smallest bird. This tiny bird is typically about four inches long and doesn’t even weigh half an ounce. How is it that one of the smallest North American birds chooses to spend the harsh cold months of winter in our yards and gardens?

Chickadees, titmice and other familiar winter birds eke out an existence by supplementing some their diet with fare from bird feeders. Although kinglets often associate with roaming mixed species flocks, they’re rarely interested in the offerings at our feeders. The kinglets are dedicated to gleaning tiny insects and spiders, as well as insects eggs and larvae, from branches and plantings in our yards. They’re so successful at it that they don’t need to turn to even a well-stocked feeder. A kinglet will on occasion sample an offering of suet or peanut butter, but this bird doesn’t make a habit of visiting feeders.

Since mid-October, I’ve been seeing a few golden-crowned kinglets, as well as the closely related ruby-crowned kinglet, at my home. Both the golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets are members of a family of diminutive birds known collectively as kinglets and firecrests. They’re such tiny, energetic bundles of feathers that they absolutely excel with the “cuteness” factor.

All kinglets are very small birds, as well as extremely active ones. The ruby-crowned and golden-crowned are also the only members of this family of birds found in North America. Four other species, however, are native to Europe, Asia and North Africa. The remaining species include goldcrest, common firecrest, Madeira firecrest and flamecrest, which is also known as the Taiwan firecrest.

Photo Courtesy of Beth McPherson • A golden-crowned kinglet survived an impact with a window pane.

Kinglets, as their name suggests, are such tiny birds that about the only North American birds smaller than kinglets are some of the hummingbirds. The kinglets belong to the family, Regulidae, and the genus, Regulus. The family and genus names are derived from a Latin word, regulus, which means “rex,”or “king” The name was apparently inspired by the colorful crown patches, often red, orange or gold, that resemble the royal “crowns” of kings.

Although similar in size and overall coloration, the ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets are easily distinguished from each other. Side by side, the two species of North American kinglets are easy to identify. The golden-crowned kinglet has a striped facial pattern formed by bold black and white stripes. The ruby-crowned kinglet, on the other hand, has a bold white eye ring but no striping. The golden-crowned kinglet has an orange crown patch, while the ruby-crowned kinglet has a red crown patch that is, more often than not, kept concealed. Both sexes of the golden-crowned kinglet possess a yellow crown patch, but only the male ruby-crowned kinglet boasts a scarlet patch of feather atop the head.

Kinglets are active birds, foraging vigorously for small insects, and spiders. When foraging, both kinglet species have a habit of flicking their wings over the backs. Even if you can’t get a good look at the birds, this behavior helps contrast them from other small birds, including some warblers, wrens and the blue-gray gnatcatcher. They’re often curious birds and can be coaxed into a closer approach if a human observer make squeaking noises to attract their attention.

Golden-crowned kinglets are widespread in the region during the winter. During the summer months, head to the slopes of some of the region’s higher mountains to look for these tiny birds that nest at the higher elevations of the Southern Appalachians. Ruby-crowned kinglets can also be found in the region during the winter, but extreme cold weather will often force this less cold-hardy species to eke out the winter months farther south.

On a January visit to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, about 20 years ago, I chanced into what must have been a winter invasion of the Low Country by ruby-crowned kinglets. These tiny birds were extremely abundant at every location I visited.

In summer, ruby-crowned kinglets are absent from the region due to their preference for nesting much farther north in spruce-fir forests in the northwestern United States and across Canada.

Kinglets are surprisingly tame at times and often exhibit as much curiosity about us as we display toward them. They’re very active birds, however, constantly moving from perch to perch. These bursts of hyperactivity can make them difficult to observe since they so rarely remain still. Although small in size, these birds more than compensate for it with a feisty spirit that does them well through the harsher weather of the winter months.

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Looking for a beautiful Christmas gift for the bird enthusiast on your shopping list? Members of the Elizabethton Bird Club are selling a professionally-produced calendar that features dozens of full-color photographs and an informative and educational grid. These calendars sell for $15 plus $2 for shipping. All sales help the club fund birding programs, public park feeders, conservation efforts and other activities in upper Northeast Tennessee.

For more information on how to obtain a calendar, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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