(This 813th Buffalo Sunday News column was first
published on October 29, 2006.)
Most of us are familiar with chickadees, those delightful little black-capped sprites that visit our feeders through the winter. Far fewer know two species that often are found with chickadees: the golden-crowned kinglet and its cousin, the ruby-crowned kinglet.
Kinglets are even smaller than chickadees. The only still smaller species that occurs here is the ruby-throated hummingbird. A single kinglet weighs less than a quarter ounce, as much as a few pats of butter.
Kinglets are mostly gray birds with white wing-bars. The two species are easily distinguished. Golden-crowns have brightly-colored caps: the male's orange and the female's yellow. In both cases the caps are outlined with black. They also have a black line through their eye.
Ruby-crowned Kinglet with grub
Photo by David Ruppert
Ruby-crowns lack these head markings but instead have distinctive white rings around their eyes. Where then does the name ruby-crown come from? If you watch these active little birds closely you will occasionally see the male ruby-crown's bright crest. It is normally hidden by other feathers and when you do see it, it will usually appear only as a thin red stripe. It is, however, raised occasionally to make a quite spectacular display, most often during courtship.
As should be expected with such tiny birds, their songs are very high pitched. Unfortunately, that means that I can no longer hear them.
On a winter walk in woodlands that include conifers -- especially pines, spruce and hemlocks -- you will often come across a troop of birds. Look among the downy and hairy woodpeckers, chickadees and creepers in such flocks to find golden-crowned kinglets. For another week or two you may also find ruby-crowns before they head south.
We're approaching the end of the fall migration of these kinglets when both species are rather common. During both spring and fall migration kinglets often mix with warblers, creating further identification difficulties for novice birders. In spring the build-up of golden-crowns occurs in early April but in mid-April ruby-crowns arrive and soon outnumber them.
Most kinglets pass through, heading for the forests of Canada. A few golden-crowns stay to nest, however, most often in thick conifer plantations. They have, for example, been recorded nesting in Amherst's Nature View Park and in the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge. They raise large families, laying as many as ten eggs, each smaller than a child's marble. Their young, when born, are the size of bumblebees.
We would know kinglets better if they came to our feeders. The reason they do not is simple: they are almost exclusively carnivores, meat eaters. That description is a bit strong when that meat is mostly tiny insects and spiders and their eggs. A study of the food of ruby-crowned kinglets found that only six percent of their food is vegetable.
Their insect food makes them useful birds. Early 20th century ornithologist Edward Howe Forbush wrote, "I watched the gold-crest [a name then for the golden-crowned kinglet] hunting its insect food amid the pines. Each one would hover for a moment before a tuft of pine needles, and then either alight upon it and feed, or pass on to another. I examined the needles after the kinglets had left them, and could find nothing on them; but when a bird was disturbed before it had finished feeding, the spray from which it had been driven was invariably found to be infested with numerous black specks, the eggs of plant lice. Evidently the birds were cleaning each spray thoroughly, as far as they went." Another observer told how they saved the pines in her yard from spruce budworms.
Kinglets' few enemies include small hawks and owls. But James Needham found a number of golden-crowned kinglets that had become entangled in the hooks of burdocks. Examining the individual birds, he described how their attitudes suggested their final struggles. He also found the burdocks infested with moth larvae that had evidently attracted them to these deathtraps.
It is remarkable that these tiny birds are able to make it through our cold winters. They are said to huddle together deep in evergreens to share body warmth. Their worst weather enemy is the ice storm which covers their insect food.