Two in the Bush
By Linda de Kort
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Hear the Ruby-crowned Kinglet sing!
HERE (.wav file)
Hear the Golden-crowned Kinglet sing!
HERE (.wav file)
Last week, the
serviceberry bushes by our home were buzzing with royal
activity. Kinglets of both local species were flitting
and hovering, gleaning the insects from the leaves of
the bush. This gave me a golden and ruby opportunity to
compare the field markings of these two diminutive
The kinglets are some of our smallest birds. The
Ruby-crowned (Regulus calendula) measures only 4.25
inches and weighs about one-quarter of an ounce. The
Golden-crowned (Regulus satrapa) is even smaller; it is
3.25 to 4.00 inches long and weighs about a fifth of an
ounce. Both species are olive green above and have
yellow edging on the flight feathers. The underparts are
dusky white. During spring they are grayer and less
yellowish than during autumn. They have two bold white
wing bars and the lower wing bar has black below the
inner half. Their eyes and short bills are black, and
their legs are dark with yellow feet. Both species feed
by gleaning insects from leaves and tips of branches.
Kinglets flick their wings constantly, as often as once
per second. They both hover like hummingbirds but
Golden-crowned will often be seen hanging upside down
while they are feeding. They can accomplish this
acrobatic maneuver because their feet have grooved
soles, which give them clinging power.
Side by side, the two species of North American Kinglets
are easy to distinguish. The Golden-crowned Kinglet has
a bold black and white striped facial pattern and gold
crown patch compared to the plain facial pattern and
broken bold eye ring of the Ruby-crowned. The red crown
patch of the Ruby-crowned is only visible in the male
and will only be displayed when he is agitated. The
crown patch of the Golden-crowned is apparent at all
times in both sexes; the male exhibits a brighter orange
than the female. The gold crown patch gives it its Latin
name Satrapa, meaning a ruler wearing a golden crown.
The Ruby-crowned Kinglets feeding here on the
serviceberry bushes in August most likely bred here.
They will be joined in the early fall by others who have
bred in Canada and Alaska on their way south. Ruby-crowneds
can breed farther north (almost to the north coast of
Alaska) than the Golden-crowned Kinglets, but they are
apparently less hardy and so migrate earlier and winter
farther south. Winter range is closely related to
temperature; they travel as far south as Guatemala and
avoid areas where the temperature frequently drops below
25 degrees Fahrenheit. There is an altitudinal as well
as longitudinal migration in the Rocky Mountains, as
birds retreat from high-altitude breeding areas. Most
wintering birds are found west of the mountains.
Ruby-crowned Kinglet populations can fluctuate widely,
declining in response to logging activities or fire, but
severe winter weather appears to have the greatest
effect on numbers. Male kinglets apparently winter
farther north than females. Perhaps that makes it easier
for them to rush back up here in early spring to claim
their territory and treat us all to their distinct song
of early spring: tsee-tsee-tsee churr churr churr tee-da-leet
tee-da-leet, tee-da-leet. The song is usually sung from
the upper branches of a spruce tree by males defending
their territory. I recognized this song as a harbinger
of spring long before I learned the identification of
the tiny bird that produced this loud rollicking melody.
Females may also sing, but their song is shorter and, as
would be expected, sung with less machismo.
The Golden-crowned Kinglets that visited us this month
might be encountered here again this winter. We find
them commonly on the Christmas Bird Counts; Bigfork Bird
Count has recently recorded as many as 150 individuals.
Golden-crowned Kinglets nest in northern conifer forests
and prefer to winter in conifers as well. They are tiny
birds, second only to hummingbirds. How they can survive
our frosty winters is remarkable. One of their survival
strategies seems to be constant foraging during the day.
Golden-crowned Kinglets are important predators on
insect larvae and eggs; insect foods consist of
budworms, aphids, bark beetles, scale insects and
others. These insectivorous birds have been shown to
consume 84% of budworm larvae and pupae in early stages
of a budworm outbreak, illustrating one of the economic
benefits they bestow to the forests they inhabit.
Although their food consists primarily of insects, their
diet also includes some tree sap. To survive cold winter
nights they roost together, often in tree cavities, to
retain body heat.
Based on the Breeding Bird Survey database,
Golden-crowned Kinglets are one of seven species whose
populations declined significantly from 1968 to 1991. As
with Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, and Mountain
Chickadee, this is a species which is impacted
significantly by removal of mature trees from the
When spring arrives, the song of the Golden-crowned is
much harder to detect than that of the Ruby-crowned; it
is soft and high pitched and consists of about a dozen
ascending notes sometimes combined with a warbled
ending. The call is easier to detect; it consists of one
to five notes on a single high pitch: zeee, zeee, zeee.
The serviceberry bushes will be bare of leaves in a
couple of months and the kinglets will have moved on to
more promising hunting grounds. The bushes certainly
provided a good opportunity for kinglet viewing and when
it is time to plant more shrubs next spring, native
serviceberry bushes will be on the top of my list.