Golden-crowned Kinglet

 Regulus satrapa

One of the hoses carrying coolant to or from the engine of my Jeep had cracked and my son was kind enough to come over and fix it. Rather than put a new hose on, however, he just shortened the existing one to remove the cracked portion. It looked like a bit of a stretch to me, but what do I know about cars?

Later that same morning, the two of us took the recently repaired Jeep up to Hanover to pick up some other car parts. We had just entered town when I noticed that the temperature gauge was heading quickly towards the red. “Guess you’d better pull over,” my son said in a bit of an understatement. Fortunately, there was an empty parking lot nearby where I could stop. By now coolant was pouring out on the ground.

Popping the hood, I heard my son exclaim, “Damn, that’s the same thing that happened to my Jeep.” Evidently, the process of shortening the hose had put too much pressure on a rather crucial plastic part which then snapped, causing a much bigger leak than there had been before. We called someone to pick us up so we could go to the auto parts store and buy a replacement. While we were waiting for our ride, I thought to ask my son why he had done the same stupid thing twice, but then I remembered how many mistakes I had repeated. In no hurry to chastise him for being human (and in no hurry to have to pay someone to fix my cars from then on) I remained silent.

Soon, another sound filled the void. It was rather high pitched, so I was glad I had my hearing aids in. I scanned the small tree from which the sound came and was delighted to see a Golden-crowned Kinglet, flitting from branch to branch in search of food. I expected the bird to hesitate when it approached us, but it appeared to go about its business without a care (except maybe for where its next meal was coming from). In fact, that kinglet kept us company for as long as it took for our ride to arrive.

Numerous authors have commented on how ‘curious” the Golden-crowned Kinglet can be. John Eastman, in his Birds of Forest, Yard, and Thicket asserts that the species readily comes to “pishing” sounds, although Pete Dunne would counter that while the bird may come, it will probably be the last to arrive. Most of the Golden-crowned Kinglets that I see usually find me before I find them.

Eastman also offers what is possibly the best description of a Golden-crowned Kinglet. He writes, “A tiny, hyperactive bird flitting in the shrubbery is probably a kinglet.” Hyperactive is the main word here. Of course, that could be said of the other six kinglet species as well. Two of these inhabit our area, the Ruby-crowned Kinglet (R. calendula) being the other. Two European species, the Common Goldcrest (R. regulus) and the Firecrest (R. ignicapillus) closely resemble the Golden-Crowned Kinglet.

In fact, when Mark Catesby saw the bird while visiting relatives in Williamsburg in the early 1700s, he just figured it was the same species that he was used to seeing back home in England. In his Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (1731-43), Catesby included an illustration of the bird hanging upside down from the branch of a Virginia Stewartia. Even though he erred on the identification, in his painting he had the kinglet’s behavior down to a tee!

 

Golden-crowned Kinglet
A bird in the hand ©Mary Jewell
This migrant hit the building where Mary works.

 

So, what exactly does a Golden-crowned Kinglet look like? In the first place it is small, measuring just 3.5 to 4 inches long. In our area, the only bird smaller would be a Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Then, there is that golden crown. This may not always be visible though. Besides, it’s more like yellow than gold. Males show some orange as well. Both the male and female crowns are bordered in black. The faces of both sexes are distinctive from those of Ruby-crowned Kinglets. Pete Dunne describes them as having an “eye-catching heavy-mascara face pattern.” Both the Golden-crowned and Ruby-Crowned Kinglet have strong wing bars.

The curious kinglet that appeared when the Jeep broke down was probably migrating through our area. Golden-crowned Kinglets are most often seen in the spring and fall. At this time, they rarely sing although they may emit high creeper-like notes. If you can hear these, you can usually locate the birds. Kinglets are often seen travelling and feeding with warbler species.

Golden-crowned Kinglets winter from Southern Canada through much of the continental United States, including Carroll County. Then, in mid-March through mid-April, they begin drifting North again to nest. The Golden-crowned Kinglet’s breeding range extends from Northern Canada and Southern Alaska south into the mountain ranges out west and in the east. Looking at the map in The 2nd Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Maryland and the District of Columbia there are quite a few green squares in Garrett County, designating areas where this species has nested. Surprisingly, there is also one of these little green squares right here in Carroll County. It points to a spot in the Hanover Watershed where a nesting pair was discovered. (See this Birding Hot Spot.)

A typical Golden-crowned Kinglet nesting territory is about four acres. The males sing to establish and maintain such territories with the raising of that fiery crest when necessary to discourage the competition. Courtship may include feeding of the female by the male. After that, however, the honeymoon is over. The female builds the nest by herself. These nests are roomy little gourd-shaped affairs that utilize local materials such as lichens, moss, and spider webs. They are deep enough that sometimes the female deposits her eggs in two layers. There are anywhere from seven to nine of the small white eggs with brownish spots.

As with any real estate, location is everything. Golden- crowned Kinglets prefer dense stands of mature spruce, fir, pine, and northern white cedar. Originally a boreal species, they have been able to extend their range due in some cases to the large plantations created in the 30s and 40s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Nests are placed high up, near the trunk of the tree. Once the eggs hatch, both male and female feed the young birds. Initially the meals consist of regurgitated insects. Later, they can be fed them whole. Young birds fledge in anywhere from 12 to 17 days. Two broods are not uncommon in many areas. In fact, a female may begin a second nest even before her first brood has left.

Migration begins again in August with the peak flying months being September and October. Golden-crowned Kinglets may go as far as the Gulf of Mexico, but many tough it out where the sun is not nearly so warm. In some places, this species must consume at least three times its body weight in food every day just to survive. Even in winter, it is primarily an insect eater. It gleans bark hibernators such as pine and spruce aphids, psyllids, fly larvae, and scale insects. It also eats its share of aphid and other insect eggs. As such, it plays an enormously important role in the control of agricultural pests. A small number of weed seeds and fruits may be taken in a pinch and Golden-crowned Kinglets have been observed feeding at woodpecker sap wells.

Still, some winters can get awfully cold. Kinglets do not cache food. Nor do they become torpid at night like Black-capped Chickadees. Zoologist Bernd Heinrich has postulated that Golden-crowned Kinglets survive subzero temperatures by huddling together with other kinglets under the cover of dense conifer branches. This attempt at shared bodily warmth has been observed among Common Goldcrests in Europe. Even so, Golden-crowned Kinglet populations periodically crash when there is a particularly severe winter.

Golden-crowned Kinglets have the same predators as most passerines. Red Squirrels may attack nests as may blue and gray jays. Occasionally, the nests may also be parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds. Strangest of all, however, is the fact that Golden-crowned Kinglets have been known to become fatally entangled in the hooked burs of the Common Burdock.

Next time your car breaks down, look for one of these
amazing little birds.

Carroll County Chapter of Maryland Ornithological Society

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