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A Bird in Hand

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A Bird in Hand

The ruby-crowned kinglet: our littlest winter denizen

Our little piece of paradise can be a busy place in the summer. With all of the tourists visiting our area and the travelers passing through, many locals shy away from this human traffic and visit our pleasant places only after the hordes have gone with the end of Labor Day. And so, too, does our bird of the month: the Ruby-crowned Kinglet. This little fellow often seems to become lost in the hubbub of summer-only migrants, only to reappear with the first frosts of Fall. At least this is true in my backyard. So let’s take a look at this littlest of our winter denizens.  

You might have to search your backyard or the neighbor’s trees very carefully in order to spot this little feathered wonder. Next to hummingbirds, kinglets are the wee-ist of indigenous birds in North America, weighting half as much as the Black-capped chickadee. Yet they can endure our long, cold winters. How they manage to do this is not well understood, but it is an impressive feat. As for me, I like to try to help them out with a suet feeder or two. If you have never set up your own suet feeder, this winter would be a great time to start. 

You might very well hear a ruby-crowned kinglet before you see it. Its winter call is a brief chit-chit that might come in series. Finding the bird, you notice a busy olive- or grey-colored bird moving actively among tree branches. They never seem to stop to rest, so you will have to be quick with your binoculars. Kinglets frequently flick their wings and actively work all angles and degrees in search of their prey. They might even hover briefly in the air as they attack something tasty on a twig, an identifying trait.  

Both males and females have a prominent yellowish wing-bar. The color of their olive-drab bodies will fade toward lighter shades on their face, breast and belly. The eyes have obvious, though incomplete, white rings which give them a distinctive appearance. The primary feathers on their wings are black, often laced with bold yellow streaking reminiscent of Pine siskins. This color pattern extends to the long tail. 

Now, as for that ruby crown as indicated in this species name – good luck with that! Only the male sports this special effect and he is very reticent in showing it. I have only seen it once. The red crown is practically invisible until breeding season, when the males flash it at each other in a sort of avian duel. 

In the winer at least, these kinglets are generally found alone or in pairs, but will hang out with other birds such as song sparrows and dark-eyed juncos. A word of caution: if you are an active birder or have spent time on the Pacific Coast, you might observe that the Ruby-crowned kinglet is the spitting image of the Hutton’s vireo. They’re not even closely related, but uncannily similar in size and appearance. But the Hutton’s does not reside in our area. Whew, that makes it easier. 

Ruby-crowned kinglets can be very localized in abundance, but are a must for your birding life-list. Sometimes they seem to disappear in the summer—overwhelmed by the abundance of summer migrants—returning to familiar haunts only in the fall and winter. Even then, they might go south for a spell if the winter is particularly harsh. But they are amazing little birds, able to survive in an environment that birds many times their size find less than hospitable. For the birder, actually spotting that ruby crown is a special moment, though it might take time and patience. Good luck with that! Happy birding. 

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

Ruby-crowned kinglet, winter birding

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