THE RUBY-CROWNED KINGLET

  • An illustration of the ruby-crowned kinglet. Staff Illustration/Andy Castillo

Published: 10/26/2020 9:23:35 AM

There are basically two different types of columns that I write. One is a story of a day afield, or a story of my interaction with a specific
animal.

The other is a more detailed natural history treatment of a particular species. This is the type of column in which I try to explain the life histories of different plants and animals; throwing in a smattering of interesting details along the way. Both are enjoyable for me, but my sister recently told me that she especially likes the natural history columns. So, this one’s for you, Laura.

Every year, at the beginning of autumn, there is a surge in bird activity as the species that breed up in Canada pass through our area on their way to warmer climes in the south. The movements of these species are so dependable that you could easily set your clock by them and the Massachusetts Audubon Society has printed up a species checklist that has graphs that show when each species is around. There is one species for which these graphs are never wrong: the ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula).

At a full adult length of 4.25 inches, this is one of North America’s smallest birds. A ruby-throated hummingbird is 4 inches long and, ignoring a couple of species of western hummingbirds, you simply aren’t going to find any bird much smaller. Unlike the hummingbird, which lingers in our yards for the entire summer, kinglets only pass through during exceptionally short windows of time in the spring and fall. As a result, many people may simply not get a look at one.

Ruby-crowned kinglets breed in what can essentially be identified as “Canada.” These are northern areas dominated by coniferous forests full of spruce, fir and some pines. The only major swath of the United States that hosts kinglets during the breeding season is the long chain of the Rocky Mountains in the west. Other than that, only a few kinglets may be found in places like Mount Washington, or the northernmost edge of the United States, where similar habitat can be found.

Like most migratory songbirds, the ruby-crowned kinglet is an enthusiastic consumer of insects and spiders. This species will also consume a few berries from time to time, but only insects make the journey north worthwhile. A pair of birds will establish a bond after a male kinglet performs his courtship ritual. This involves an elaborate dance, a special song and the flaring of bright red feathers that appear as a mohawk across the top of the male’s head. These feathers are not always on display and are not always easily seen.

Once the female accepts the male she will set about the task of building a nest. Like the nest of a vireo, or an oriole, the nest is suspended at the notch of a forked branch and is like a luxurious hammock woven out of the softest mosses, lichens and plant fibers. Enhancing the luxury of the interior is a generous lining of animal fur. When complete, the nest is virtually invisible, looking like nothing more than a dense spot of lichen amongst the smaller forking branchlets at the end of a large limb.

Into this nest the female will lay seven to nine creamy-white eggs and the male will defend the pair’s territory while the female incubates the eggs for 12 days. After the eggs hatch, both male and female will do their best to keep their large new family fed. Only 12 days later, the chicks will fledge and then they can begin to learn to take care of themselves. Because of the extremely short breeding season far to the north, the chicks don’t have much time before they have to start making their way south.

They arrive in our area in the final week of September, just in time for my sister’s birthday on Sept. 23. By the middle of October, they have generally moved on, with only a few stragglers to be noticed here and there. The majority of individuals will be either females or juveniles, so spotting one of those ruby crowns will be a challenge. You might have better luck in mid-April, when the kinglets return to their northern breeding grounds.

Well, here I am at the end of my allotted space and there is so much more to tell you. So, I am going to continue my look at kinglets next week with a species that is even smaller than the ruby-crowned kinglet. Until then, I hope you are able to enjoy these crisp, gorgeous days of autumn by getting outside and looking for all things interesting.

Also, let’s all cross our collective fingers and hope that if there is any rain it only falls on the weekdays, when we are stuck at work.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 23 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and Massachusetts State Parks, and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.




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