Wintering Ruby-crowned Kinglets Are Back
by Ro Wauer
I suppose that some of the most common bird questions I hear this time of year are about ruby-crowned kinglets. What is that tiny yellowish bird? Why is it so nervous? How come, if it is a ruby-crowned kinglet, why I can’t see its ruby crown? All are good questions, and at least the first two help to identify this little songbird. It certainly is the smallest of our wintertime songbirds. In the North American bird world, only hummingbirds are smaller. And a good observer can not help but notice its extremely nervous behavior of constant movement, rapidly shifting about and moving its wings even when perched.
Ruby-crowns are fairly easy to identify because of their size and wing-flicking behavior, but also their broken whitish eye-ring, two white wing bars, and the male’s red crown patch that, unless they are agitated, is not often seen. A highly concerned individual, perhaps due to a nearby predator, usually will raise its red crown as if to frighten or warn a predator. During the breeding season, it will flash its red cap even more. But overall, wintering ruby-crown kinglets are greening-yellow birds that spend most of their time hunting tiny insects and spiders high in the canopy or shrubbery.
Although it is one of our most abundant wintertime songbirds, because of its habit of not coming to feeders or feeding on the ground, it is not as obvious as most of our other wintering songbirds. But for those of us with an “ear for the birds,” its songs and calls give it away. Its call is a husky “did-it,” and its song, although uncommon in winter, is a loud, variable “tee tee tee, tew tew tew, teedadee.” By late winter, ruby-crowns can often be heard singing partial songs, probably preparing for courtship on their breeding grounds north and west of Texas. Nesting occurs in the conifer forests of the Sierra Nevada and northward throughout boreal Canada and Alaska.
Although breeding birds rarely mingle with other songbirds, in winter they usually occur in bird parties (flocking) that may include numerous individuals of several species. Typical bird parties in South Texas may include tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees, white-eyed vireos, blue jays, various warblers, especially orange-crowns, and even a few non-passerine species such as sapsuckers and woodpeckers. Flocking birds is said to relate to the available food supply. Flocking increases feeding efficiency, although it is less important when food is super abundant. In addition, the various individuals in a bird party, utilizing slightly different habits in feeding, rarely miss the presence of a predator and are able to warn the other members.
Seeing a ruby-crowned kinglet well may require a little more attention than a quick look out of the window. Since they usually stay in or near heavy foliage where they can easily elude a predator, it usually requires a concerted effort and a pair of binoculars. But they are present throughout our area all winter, and finding and watching one of these little songbirds can help brighten the day.