Photo by Joe Halton Photo by Ron Holmes
A local delight on a winter nature walk is a flickering flock of Golden-crowned Kinglets foraging among the fir trees. Their tiny round silhouettes resemble ornaments. They often hang suspended upside down from limbs as they glean the fir needles for food. The attention getting flick of their wings and glimpse of their flashy yellow crown makes them a favorite forest bird.
Golden-crowned Kinglets (GCKI) eat mainly insects, spiders and tree sap. In winter they forage seeds and berries too. They are often seen gleaning bark. GCKIs will flock in winter and will sometimes join mixed flocks of other small forest birds such as chickadees, Red-breasted nuthatches, Brown Creepers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Downy Woodpeckers. Mixed flocks provide predator defense and feeding efficiency benefits.
The GCKI is expanding its breeding range southward from the boreal fir forests of North America down into mixed-spruce forests throughout the United States. The monogamous breeding pair unusually raise two large broods each season. The clutch size ranges from 5 to 11 eggs each time. The nest is a hanging pendant or basket usually built from a fir tree branch near the trunk. The oblong nest has an opening near the top and is constructed from moss, lichen, spider web, and dead leaves. The cavity is lined with soft materials such as plant down and feathers. The nest is completed in a quick 5 days. With so many eggs in an oblong nest, the crowded eggs are positioned in two layers. The female incubates the eggs over 2 weeks with the male bringing her food. The altricial hatchling is the size of a bumblebee with a few tufts of down on top of their heads. The young birds are ready to fledge within 2 weeks after a high protein diet of insects only. Although adult GCKIs will eat spiders, the young will reject spiders offered to them. The male will continue to feed the first fledged brood while the female starts laying eggs for a second brood.
There are five subspecies of GCKIs, some migrate while others don’t. There are slight variations in bill length and the color of plumage on their backs and rumps. The year-round resident in Skagit County is the subspecies olivaceus. This subspecies is smaller with a medium-sized bill. It’s back and rump are dark olive green. Like all subspecies of GCKIs, the males have orange feathers in the center of their yellow crown. Females and juveniles have only yellow crown feathers. A black u-shaped border of feathers surround the yellow emphasizing the brightness of the crown feathers. The GCKI is among the smallest birds. At only 4 inches it is slightly larger than most hummingbirds.
In winter, these birds are known to huddle together to stay warm in very cold temperatures. As the season progresses and GCKIs start eating mostly seeds and berries, they can be found in lower level shrubs. Their high pitched calls will most likely attract your attention first. At eye level, the viewing fun begins since often these birds are easily observed without binoculars. In Skagit County, Golden-crowned Kinglets are plentiful along trails of mixed deciduous and fir trees. They are year-round residents, but are most often observed in winter flocks. So get out and look for a group of kinglets who are collectively referred to as a castle, court, princedom or dynasty of kinglets!