Birds in Focus: The Two Kinglets - Not Quite Birds of a Feather

Birds in Focus: The Two Kinglets - Not Quite Birds of a Feather

Top: Golden-crowned kinglet (photo credit: Kelly Colgan Azar / Flickr C.C.). Bottom: Ruby-crowned kinglet (photo credit: Nigel - Winnu / Flickr C.C.).

In frigid woods this winter, find yourself a glint of springtime – a spark from the head of a golden crowned kinglet.

Smaller than a chickadee but seemingly greater in kinetic energy, the kinglet flashes a crown of highway paint yellow edged in black. In spring – sometimes in winter – the male adds shocking orange to the eruption.

Many of us living in or near northern woodlands can see this blaze year-round. A zone across much of the northeastern U.S. and the Canadian Maritimes is our kinglet “sweet spot.” Elsewhere, particularly across the rest of Canada, golden-crowned kinglets migrate south, but not too far. Our other kinglet in the Northeast – the ruby-crowned – is a more determined migrant, leaving our northern latitudes each fall for the southern U.S. and Mexico.

This schism in migratory behavior between the two kinglets is unusual. For the most part, members of a particular avian genus exhibit similar winter survival strategies: they either go south or they stay close to their breeding regions. All six vireo species in the Northeast, for example, and all four streaked thrushes in the genus Catharus, including hermit and Swainson’s thrushes, migrate. Our only two northeastern chickadee species, boreal and black-capped, and our four woodpeckers in the genus Picoides, including hairy and downy, essentially stay put. Our two kinglets bend this rule perhaps like no other songbird in the Northeast. To my mind, it’s a big deal – almost like one maple species being deciduous and another evergreen.

Food availability drives a lot of bird migration. And the kinglets have similar diets of small arthropods – insects, mites, and spiders (including their eggs) – and occasionally seeds and wild fruits, particularly in fall and winter. As insect abundance wanes each autumn, the ruby-crowned kinglet vacates northern breeding grounds for warmth and insect prey farther south, yet the golden-crowned kinglet toughs it out farther north.

The golden-crown’s winter plan seems to feature more determined and diligent foraging, with less hovering than ruby-crowns and more gleaning. It digs and finds overwintering arthropods hiding out in plant buds and in and under bark. It also has a novel approach to conserving its own body heat. Biologist and writer Bernd Heinrich famously tracked golden-crowned kinglets in subzero temperatures in Maine until dusk, when he found them huddling in conifers for the night in groups of two to four.

“The birds forage until darkness and do not necessarily come back every night to the same site,” Heinrich wrote in The Wilson Bulletin in 2003. “Traveling in groups and huddling where they end up in the darkness compensates for small body size and potential compromises in foraging time.”

Rarely is a golden-crowned kinglet alone; I often find them foraging in groups of three or four during winter. Ruby-crowns, particularly when I see them in the south in winter, tend to be solitary.

One possible explanation for this split in winter behavior is that our two kinglets aren’t as closely related as they might appear. Yes, they’re in the same genus, Regulus, but DNA sequencing suggests that the ruby-crowned kinglet is a bit of a genetic oddball, off on its own branch in the kinglet lineage. The golden-crowned kinglet appears more closely related to a lookalike species in Europe and Asia, a hardy northerner called the goldcrest.

So as it turns out, the golden-crowned kinglet, one of the smallest winter birds here in the north, plays at least a symbolic role in connecting us to northern woodlands around the planet.

Bryan Pfeiffer is an author, wildlife photographer, guide, and consulting naturalist who specializes in birds and insects. He lives in Montpelier, Vermont.


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