Can you name the smallest bird in Chautauqua County? Of course. The Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Now, can you name the second-smallest birds in our county and the whole Northeast? The Golden-crowned and the Ruby-crowned Kinglets. They vary from three and one-half inches to four and one-quarter inches long. It would take three to five of them combined to weigh one ounce. That's tiny!
They get their names from the colors of their heads. Those of both the male and female golden-crowns are that color most of the time. However, the male will show orange crowns when it is excited, as when another male intrudes its territory. The heads of both the male and female ruby-crowns are an olive green. They get their name from the male. When they are excited, they show a red crown.
Another way to distinguish the birds is by the eyes. The ruby-crowned has a broken eye ring and the golden-crowned has a white eye line. Also, these hyperactive little birds are unlike small warblers, in that they flick their wings when feeding.
Photos by Tom LeBlanc
Above: A Ruby-crowned Kinglet in hand, to provide a size ratio. At left: A Golden-crowned Kinglet with prominent head stripe.
The two breeding ranges are from the south of Hudson Bay in Canada to the south of the Great Lakes and New England and west to Alaska. The ruby-crowned breeds more north in Canada than the golden-crowned, but generally the ruby-crowned travels farther south in the winter. Migration of golden-crowns back to the north occurs in March and April, while ruby-crowns head north about a month later.
Behavior during migration differs. The ruby-crowned will sing, but not the golden-crowned. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes the ruby-crowned's song as "too-fritchyoo-fritchyoo-fritchyoo." It includes more complexity than the golden-crowned's much higher song of "see-see-see."
How do these teeny tiny birds stay alive in the cold winter? Even though they look plump, they are not. Bernd Heinrich, biologist and author of "Winter World," plucked the feathers out of a dead golden-crowned. The body weighed 5.43 grams, her body feathers were .403 grams, and her wing and tail feathers were .095 grams. Her insulation feathers were about 6.4 percent of her body weight. Heinrich's insulation clothing was about half that.
As do other birds, the kinglets fluff out their feathers to hold in warmer air and hide their heads in their back feathers to protect their bills and eyes. To protect their feet, they reduce the blood flow to keep their temperatures as low as possible - probably just above freezing.
Ellen Thaler, an Austrian ornithologist, studied the kinglets' legs, which are usually light brown. However, when they are breeding, blood is flushed through them to raise their temperature to 39 degrees centigrade. They use their feet to rotate their many eggs (eight to 11), since their brood-patch on their breasts and bellies can only incubate two or three eggs at a time. The eggs are kept in two layers, so those on the top layer could help insulate those on the bottom.
Kinglets are very fragile. One wonders how their species can survive. The size of the egg clutch is a major factor. Most birds only lay four to six eggs. After the female is finished incubating the first clutch of chicks, the male kinglet takes over feeding them. The female then builds a second nest and lays a second clutch of as many eggs. This practice is called double-clutching.
Still, predators (red squirrels and blue jays) eat some chicks and some die because of the cold. Also, those heavy insulating feathers cause kinglets to be weak fliers in migration. However, without them, they would be more susceptible to the cold. Their evolutionary development of large egg clutches and many feathers and blood flushing to the legs has helped them overcome the negatives.
Where would you look for kinglets? They prefer to build their nests in coniferous trees. The golden-crowned likes spruce, fir, pine and northern white cedar trees. The nest will be close to the trunk. The Ruby-crowned prefers more open areas like bogs with their black spruces and tamaracks. It builds its nest near the outer edge of a limb. They feed their young frozen caterpillars. The ruby-crowned also feeds its young spiders.
In the winter, some ruby-crowns stay in the area. Look and listen for them high in the conifers when they find insects in the bark and on the needles and branch tips. Golden-crowns have been observed eating sap from wells drilled by woodpeckers. Although mostly insectivores, they might eat weed seeds and fruits, including elderberries in the fall and winter. One source suggested that the ruby-crowned doesn't eat fruit.
Finally, both species travel in flocks of Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Nuthatches and Downy Woodpeckers. Larger numbers of birds are more efficient in finding food sources and providing protection against predators.
You might just find kinglets at the Jamestown Audubon Center and Sanctuary. These flighty birds might be in the shrubs jumping along beside you. The trails are open daily from dawn to dusk. The center's hours are Monday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. On Sundays, our free day, the center is open from 1 to 4:30 p.m. We are at 1600 Riverside Road, off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. Call 569-2345 or visit www.jamestownaudubon.org for more information.
Ann Beebe is the volunteer in charge of the gardens at the Audubon.