Natural Observations–Little Kings


Photos by Robin Song

In this Earth and Beyond program, we learn about a couple of very small, quick birds of the forest.  KTNA volunteer Robin Song is the host, writer, and producer.


There are two species of kinglets in Alaska- the Golden-crowned and the Ruby-crowned. Their name means “little king”, and with their crowns of ruby and gold, I find this an apt moniker. The Golden-crowned Kinglet is the smaller of the two- just four inches long and weighing a mere 0.21 ounces. In comparison, this diminutive kinglet is the same length as one of the two Alaskan hummingbirds- the Anna’s- which is also four inches. The Ruby-crowned Kinglet is slightly larger at four point twenty-five inches in length and weighing 0.23 ounces. The chickadee, considered a small bird, is five point twenty-five inches in length and weighs 0.39 ounces-point sixteen ounces heavier than the Ruby-crowned Kinglet.


Both the male and female Golden-crowned Kinglets have a bright yellow crown, ringed in black. The male also has beautiful bright orange feathers in the center of his crown. When excited or agitated, he can raise his crest, giving the impression of a crown of flame on his head. The black eye-stripe is offset by a white stripe above and below the eye.


Both kinglets have gray backs, black and pale yellow wings and tails, white wingbars and a black bar across the base of the secondary wing feathers. Both have black legs with yellowish feet.


The Ruby-crowned Kinglet has a broken white eye-ring, and has buffy-olive flanks. The gray back is tinged with olive. Only the male has a ruby crown, and it is hidden until the bird is excited or agitated, then the crest is raised and is shockingly bright scarlet.


The Ruby-crowned migrates to and from Alaska, while the Golden-crowned has been known to tough out our winters in south-central and southeastern Alaska. Why the smaller Golden-crowned Kinglet doesn’t spend its winters in warmer climes remains a mystery. While usually a solitary bird, the Ruby-crowned tends to migrate with a mixed flock and is often found amongst warblers and sparrows.


The Ruby-crowned is found throughout most of Alaska, across Canada and on down into Mexico, where it winters. The Golden-crowned has a somewhat smaller range, found from South-central Alaska, across southern Canada and on down to Central America. While the Golden-crowned stays primarily in coniferous forests, the Ruby-crowned also frequents mixed forests and ventures into gardens and yards. While I rarely see the Golden-crowned, unless I am out hiking, the Ruby-crowned is often in the false Choke Cherry tree in front of the cabin, flicking its wings in its distinctive animated behavior. It will also hover for several seconds in front of leaves and twigs, searching for insects.


The Ruby-crowned Kinglet female builds a complex nest high amongst spruce branches. It is a hanging, globular cup made of soft bark, lichens and moss, woven together with cobwebs. She incorporates feathers and moose hair into the soft grass lining. She lays from five to twelve eggs, which are cream-colored with brown speckles. Notably, the Ruby-crowned lays one of the largest clutches of any songbird in North America. The mass of the clutch can be up to seventy-eight percent of the female’s mass. After fourteen days the eggs hatch, and the monogamous parents feed the nestlings for another two weeks. They continue to feed them after they fledge until they have learned to hunt food for themselves. Their diet includes insects and larvae, spiders, weed seeds, tree sap, elderberries, and wild currants. Kinglets hunt for food both in trees and on the ground. Ruby-crowns can be found fluttering in grass on the ground, using their thin, sharp beaks to hunt for insects and seeds. Their dull coloring blends in well as they spend time on the ground.


As a photographer, I can attest as to how well their plumage blends in to tree foliage. (I watch for that bright white, ‘broken’ large eye-ring.) They move almost non-stop, on their quest for insects and other food, and just when I get a kinglet in focus, it’s gone again. Even with their yellow and black crowns, the Golden-crown Kinglet is just as difficult to photograph, choosing to stay high in spruce and birch, hidden amongst the boughs. Even in winter, these tiny birds are hard to find.


The most identifying feature of the Ruby-crowned Kinglet is its amazing song. It’s complex, long and loud. It’s made up of whistles, chatter and warbles, usually ending with very high-pitched notes climbing the scale. One of the first migratory species to arrive in the spring, I listen for the song of the “little king”, standing out in sharp contrast to the winter flocks’ simpler chorus. The Golden-crowned Kinglet’s song is shorter, less complex and higher-pitched. Its voice is softer, too, and takes some careful listening to hear above the wind in the trees in the winter. It doesn’t sing its song in the wintertime, rather giving short, high-pitched calls.

With summer winding down and autumn approaching, I am seeing more juvenile birds around. A lot of the adults have already migrated out of the area, leaving their offspring to feed and build up their body weight, preparing for their up-coming migration. These juveniles will rely on their instincts to guide them along their way on their migratory routes-some even without the benefit of a flock. How they are able to accomplish this feat boggles my mind. The first two weeks in August had me busy with the binoculars and camera, watching the flock of birds visiting the Choke Cherry tree. In amongst the juvenile warblers, sparrows, juncos and robins were a few juvenile Ruby-crowned Kinglets. The late spring had reduced the number of adult kinglets nesting in our area significantly, and I was pleased to see that at least one family had made it through the summer. Watching the little birds flitting amidst the still-green leaves, I wished the little kings well for their up-coming migration.


By Robin Song 8-2013




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