There are many different ways to become more familiar with the backyard birds at your own home. I’m fond of keeping a year list of all the bird species that travel through the yard and garden at my home. Keeping such a list is a great way to document the seasonal comings and goings of the bird life in your own neighborhood. You may be surprised at what you see.
Patricia Werth, a resident of Abingdon, Virginia, sent me an email to share the results of her year of counting birds in her yard.
“I told you at the beginning of 2016 I was going to list all the birds that come to my feeder or are in our yard,” she wrote. “I counted 29, but I just saw a very small bird that resembled the goldfinch, except smaller and more greenish on the back. Was that a warbler? I am not very good differentiating between sparrows, either.”
She was pleased with her 2016 results, but she wanted some suggestions for identifying the unknown bird. Based on her description of the bird’s small size and greenish coloration on the back, I suggested she do some online research into kinglets.
I received a second email from Patricia thanking me for the suggestion. “After looking up the kinglets, I do believe it was the female golden-crowned kinglet,” she wrote, adding that she was certain that she had seen her before.
The identification of the golden-crowned kinglet took her total to 30 species. “Seeing that they (kinglets) rarely eat seeds that was a real treat to have them visit,” Patricia wrote. “I believe I have heard them call, too, but thought it was a chickadee, as they are so vocal.”
Her year’s already off to a good start with goldfinches at her feeders. With the recent snowfall, she also saw her first dark-eyed junco of the year. When it comes to size, however, few of the birds that patronize our feeders are as diminutive in size as the kinglets.
As their name suggests, kinglets are tiny birds. In fact, about the only North American birds smaller than kinglets are some of the hummingbirds. The kinglets, known outside North America as “flamecrests” or “firecrests,” 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. In addition to the two North American species, four other species of kinglets can be found in North Africa, Europe and Asia.
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 feathers atop the head. Observers can expend a lot of energy trying to get a look at the crown patches, which are typically only displayed when the bird is agitated.
Kinglets are very active birds. If warblers can be described as energetic, the kinglets are downright frenetic in their activities. The kinglets almost never pause for long, flitting from branch to branch in trees and shrubs as they constantly flick their wings over their backs. These bursts of hyperactivity can make them difficult to observe. Although small in size, these birds more than compensate for it with a feisty spirit that does them well through the harsh winter months.
Kinglets often join mixed flocks comprised of other species of birds, some of which are regular feeder visitors. Perhaps by observing their flock counterparts, some kinglets have learned to accept feeder fare such as suet, meal worms and chopped nuts. Away from feeders, kinglets mostly feed on a range of small insects and arachnids. These tiny birds will also consume some fruit, such as the berries of poison oaks and dogwoods.
Normally, kinglets have a rather fleeting lifespan. These tiny birds can be considered old if they live three or four years. There are always exceptions. The oldest golden-crowned kinglet on record was six years and four months old. That individual, a male, was documented by a bird bander in 1976, according to the website All About Birds.
Overall, kinglets are trusting, tame birds and a welcome addition to any flocks visiting your yard and garden. These tiny feathered sprites are definitely worth getting to know.
The Bristol Bird Club will conduct a birding trip of Burke’s Garden, Virginia, on Saturday, Feb. 11. Red-headed woodpecker, a relative of the Northern flicker, is among the target birds. Other possible birds will include golden eagles, rough-legged hawks, horned larks and a pair of bald eagles on a nesting site located in the beautiful, bowl-like valley of Burke’s Garden.
Participants should plan to meet by 8 a.m. at the Hardee’s at 900 E. Fincastle St. in Tazewell, Virginia. Arrive early and enjoy breakfast. Attendees will carpool to Burke’s Garden. Those making the trip might also glimpse alpacas and a camel. Bring a bit of cash if you would like to enjoy a soup and sandwich lunch at the Amish Store. For more information on this trip, call Kevin Blaylock at (423) 943-5841.
I visited Burke’s Garden for the first time almost 20 years ago on one of these February field trips. It was quite the memorable birding experience and yielded me my first-ever sightings of rough-legged hawk and common goldeneye.