The Two Kinglets: Not Quite Birds of a Feather
In frigid woods this winter, find yourself a glint of springtime – a
spark from the head of a golden-crowned kinglet.
Smaller than a chickadee but seemingly greater in kinetic
energy, the kinglet flashes a crown of highway-paint yellow
edged in black. In spring – sometimes in winter – the male adds
shocking orange to the eruption.
Many of us living in or near northern woodlands can
see this blaze year-round. A zone across much of the northeastern U.S. and the Canadian Maritimes is our kinglet
“sweet spot.” Elsewhere, particularly across the rest of Canada,
golden-crowned kinglets migrate south, but not too far. Our
other kinglet in the Northeast – the ruby-crowned – is a more
determined migrant, leaving our northern latitudes each fall
for the southern U.S. and Mexico.
This schism in migratory behavior between the two kinglets
is unusual. For the most part, members of a particular avian
genus exhibit similar winter survival strategies: they either go
south or they stay close to their breeding regions. All six vireo
species in the Northeast, for example, and all four streaked
thrushes in the genus Catharus, including hermit and Swainson’s
thrushes, migrate. Our only two northeastern chickadee species,
boreal and black-capped, and our four woodpeckers in the
genus Picoides, including hairy and downy, essentially stay put.
Our two kinglets bend this rule perhaps like no other songbird
in the Northeast. To my mind, it’s a big deal – almost like one
maple species being deciduous and another evergreen.
Food availability drives a lot of bird migration. And the
kinglets have similar diets of small arthropods – insects, mites,
and spiders (including their eggs) – and occasionally seeds and
wild fruits, particularly in fall and winter. As insect abundance
wanes each autumn, the ruby-crowned kinglet vacates northern
breeding grounds for warmth and insect prey farther south, yet
the golden-crowned kinglet toughs it out farther north.
The golden-crown’s winter plan seems to feature more
determined and diligent foraging, with less hovering than ruby-crowns and more gleaning. It digs and finds overwintering
arthropods hiding out in plant buds and in and under bark.
It also has a novel approach to conserving its own body heat.
Biologist and writer Bernd Heinrich famously tracked golden-crowned kinglets in subzero temperatures in Maine until dusk,
when he found them huddling in conifers for the night in
groups of two to four.
“The birds forage until darkness and do not necessarily come
back every night to the same site,” Heinrich wrote in The Wilson
Bulletin in 2003. “Traveling in groups and huddling where they
end up in the darkness compensates for small body size and
potential compromises in foraging time.”
Rarely is a golden-crowned kinglet alone; I often find them
foraging in groups of three or four during winter. Ruby-crowns,
Story by Bryan Pfeiffer
BIRDS in focus
Top: Golden-crowned kinglet. Bottom: Ruby-crowned kinglet.
particularly when I see them in the south in winter, tend to be
One possible explanation for this split in winter behavior
is that our two kinglets aren’t as closely related as they might
appear. Yes, they’re in the same genus, Regulus, but DNA
sequencing suggests that the ruby-crowned kinglet is a bit of
a genetic oddball, off on its own branch in the kinglet lineage.
The golden-crowned kinglet appears more closely related to a
lookalike species in Europe and Asia, a hardy northerner called
So as it turns out, the golden-crowned kinglet, one of the
smallest winter birds here in the north, plays at least a symbolic
role in connecting us to northern woodlands around the planet.
Bryan Pfeiffer is an author, wildlife photographer, guide, and consulting naturalist who
specializes in birds and insects. He lives in Montpelier, Vermont.