June 18, 2018
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Sneering at the cold: The life of a golden-crowned kinglet

Luke Seitz | BDN
Luke Seitz | BDN
Golden-crowned kinglets are hardy birds, despite their diminutive size.
By Bob Duchesne, Special to the BDN

The golden-crowned kinglet thumbs its nose at winter. Or it would if it had thumbs. Or a nose. The point is this: it is one tough little bird. While other birds head south for the winter, kinglets sneer at the cold.

Golden-crowned kinglets are tiny, the weight of two pennies, but they are well insulated. The total weight of their body feathers is four to five times that of their flight feathers. That makes sense, since most don’t migrate long distances. Kinglets are known to seek protected conifer boughs for nighttime roosting, and they are suspected of huddling together in tree cavities, snuggling up to conserve heat.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that kinglets can subsist in a Maine winter without eating seeds. Unlike chickadees and nuthatches, kinglets are almost exclusively insectivores. They hover and glean from the tips of conifers, constantly searching for dormant insects, caterpillars, inchworms and larvae. This continuous flitting motion frustrates birders and photographers, because the kinglets just won’t hold still for a good look. Forgive them. Their survival depends on an unwavering hunt for food. Indeed, studies have shown that a majority of kinglets don’t survive the winter.

To overcome the odds, kinglets have two things going for them. First, they are so small and active that it’s generally not worth the effort to try to catch one. Hence, they are seldom bothered by predators.

Second, they employ a unique breeding strategy, raising two large broods each summer despite a short nesting season. Most songbirds lay four to five eggs. Kinglets lay eight to eleven, beginning in chilly April.

The nests are large and well insulated, generally built close to the trunk of a tall spruce, sheltered up in the high branches.

The male feeds the female during the first incubation, helping her to keep her strength up. She’ll need it. Almost immediately after the first brood leaves the nest, the female begins laying a second clutch. She may help feed the first fledglings for a day or two, but the job is largely handed over to the male. Thanks to abundant insect life in the Maine forest during the summer, Dad can successfully feed all the hungry youngsters with little help from Mom, and her energies can be devoted to the second brood.

Together, the parents successfully fledge more than 80 percent of their chicks, which is pretty darn good in a dangerous world.

The kinglet’s reproductive strategy appears to win out over the bird’s low rates of winter survival. The breeding range of the golden-crowned kinglet was once limited to the boreal spruce-fir forests of the north. But over the last few decades, their range has been expanding into spruce plantings as far south as Pennsylvania. The trend may reverse itself as the planet continues to warm and the world’s southernmost spruces succumb to rising temperatures.

Golden-crowned kinglets may be small, but they’re easy enough to find in the winter because they are noisy. They forage in small, loosely organized flocks, relying on regular call notes to keep the group together. The thin, high-pitched see-see-see can be expected in conifer stands anywhere in the state, especially around sources of water. I find it virtually impossible to walk in the woods in winter and not hear them routinely.

Males and females appear similar, save that the female’s crown is yellow while the male’s golden crown is tipped with fiery orange. Kinglets raise their crests when agitated, trying to warn off intruders. They are generally social when not breeding, but they protect a territory while nesting. Interestingly, they don’t seem perturbed by the presence of their close cousin, the ruby-crowned kinglet. They share much of the same habitat and food supply in the spring, but I can’t say that I’ve ever seen them mad at each other. There is no winter competition over food because the ruby-crowned kinglet is sensible enough to migrate in mid-autumn, returning from the southern United States in late April.

Golden and ruby-crowned kinglets are the only members of their genus in North America, but they are astonishingly similar in appearance and behavior to their two Old World cousins — the goldcrest and firecrest. Once, while my wife and I were walking near the Roman Colosseum, I heard call notes that I swore were those of a kinglet. When several descended to scold us, their behavior was identical to birds back home. We celebrated with gelato, though, to be honest, that’s how we celebrated everything while in Italy.

Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at www.mainebirdingtrail.com. Reach Bob at duchesne@midmaine.com.


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