Tinkerbells of the Bird World

Day after day in late May, an unfamiliar bird song that I heard as I walked through our Norway spruce grove haunted me. Then, on May 30, I finally identified the singers. Golden-crowned kinglets! And the female had nesting materials in her beak.

Bold and cheerful as chickadees, golden-crowned kinglets are smaller, more elfin and full of fluttery grace. I think of them as the Tinkerbells of the bird world. They are almost as small as hummingbirds and can even hover like them. These tiny olive and buffy gray birds have white wing bars, a whitish eyebrow stripe and yellow feet. Named for their golden crowns, other nicknames, such as flame-crest and fiery-colored wren, refer to the male’s orange-red crown patch, which is much brighter than the female’s yellow one. Both crowns are outlined in black and their scientific name–Regulus satrapa –means “small king who wears a golden crown.”

Almost entirely insectivorous, they make their living by gleaning insects, their larvae and eggs, as well as mites and spiders, from tree buds and conifer needles, and under leaves and bark, often hanging upside down to do so. Until I discovered them last May, they were strictly fall and winter visitors here, so I was thrilled that my favorite winter birds had decided to breed in our two-acre spruce grove. But I was also surprised. According to most sources, golden-crowned kinglet nesting trees are usually 35 to 70 feet tall and most of the trees in our 27-year-old spruce grove are less than 30 feet high.

As I sat watching them in the shade of a spruce tree beside a mowed path, the female continued gathering nesting materials which looked like spider webs, even landing directly above my head, while the male sang the high-pitched, ascending, warbling song that seemed to go on and on. Both sexes sing but during the half-hour I observed them, he sang while she worked.

It took me until June 2 to visually locate the nest because fearful of leading predators to the nesting site, I always sat in the same place which was 12 feet from the spruce tree they flew into with nesting materials. On that day both kinglets were working on the nest and I spotted it half-hidden beneath a thick, overhanging spruce bough beside the mowed path and 12 feet from the ground. During each visit to the nest, carrying what looked like dried grasses, they spent several minutes moving around under the bough as they worked on the nest. They were also more cautious than before, probably because then they had only begun nest building, using the spider webs to anchor the nest to the limb and to construct its outer walls. Now they seemed to be gathering nest-lining materials and putting the final touches on their cup-shaped nest.

Unfortunately, I did not have the unobstructed views of the nest and nest building of golden-crowned kinglets that researchers Robert and Carolyn Galati had had. In their pioneering study of golden-crowned kinglets, they observed them from wooden towers built next to their nest trees since their kinglets nested on average 50 feet above the ground. The Galatis first studied golden-crowned kinglets’ nesting behavior in Minnesota’s Itasca State Park from 1954 to 1957 and in 1960. Altogether they spent 3,800 hours observing 19 kinglet nests involving 13 different breeding pairs.

According to them, golden-crowned kinglets take from four to six days to build their nests. If my pair had started on May 30, when I first saw them, June 2 was their fourth day. On most days I managed to watch them for an hour in late morning, but golden-crowned kinglets build their nests throughout the day so I missed much of the activity.

The following day they were still working on it, flying in every 12 minutes with small feathers to line their nest. Although both of them sang and called back and forth while gathering nesting materials in the far reaches of our spruce grove, they were even more cautious near the nest, landing quietly and fast, sliding up under the bough and disappearing.

Then, for almost two weeks, all I heard or saw of them was faint singing when I walked through the spruce grove. Golden-crowned kinglets are especially quiet and secretive during egg laying, which took place during that period. The female lays an average of nine white to cream-colored eggs speckled with pale brown and lilac and she incubates them for about 15 days.

On June 16 I settled down at my usual watching post and peered at the nest area through my binoculars. Almost immediately, I caught the flash of a small bird as it dipped down from the nest and off through the spruces. After a short wait, I noticed a slight rustle in the spruce branches near the nest. Quickly I focused my binoculars on what little I could see of the nest in time to glimpse a bird’s head as it settled back down. In the distance, the male sang before landing nearby, foraging and flying away. She fidgeted, as if stirred by her mate’s example, and flipped off the nest so fast I couldn’t adjust my binoculars in time to get a good look. But she returned in less than ten minutes. Again she slid into the nest from below, using the undersides of nearby branches as cover. The nest branch swayed in the breeze and as she settled down in her snug cradle I glimpsed her golden crown.

For two weeks, through incredible heat and humidity and a plague of mosquitoes, I watched as the male sang her on and off the nest and accompanied her as she searched for food. In addition to watching the beguiling kinglets, I heard and saw a bevy of other birds: common yellowthroats, northern cardinals, wood thrushes, black-capped chickadees, field sparrows, blue jays, ovenbirds, cedar waxwings, red-eyed vireos, mourning doves, chipping sparrows, tufted titmice, red-bellied woodpeckers, cerulean warblers, black-billed cuckoos, eastern wood pewees, scarlet tanagers, indigo buntings and American goldfinches. All of them seemed to be setting up housekeeping also, either in the overgrown field surrounding the spruce grove or in the nearby deciduous forest. Eastern towhee fledglings that foraged on the ground beside me one day, and were fed by a parent on a nearby spruce branch the next especially charmed me.

On June 29 the female kinglet seemed more restless than usual. When she left to feed, she rummaged on branches overlooking the nest as if she was afraid to leave it while the male sang in the distance. The eggs were due to hatch any day, but a family reunion called me away and I didn’t get back to nest watching until the first of July.

I arrived at the nest at 9:15 a.m. and after half an hour, during which I heard kinglet song and glimpsed one or the other slipping on and off the nest, a kinglet landed below the nest with food in its beak. The eggs had hatched! After that, both parents zipped in and out of the nest feeding the nestlings.

But on my next observation day–July 4–the nest area was ominously quiet. After 25 minutes I heard a faint kinglet song in the distance. When I finally gave up and left, I heard more kinglet singing in the lower part of the spruce grove. Then I had an excellent view of the male as he flew out of the grove and into a small black locust tree. He kept singing until I saw him. Then he flew back into the grove.

That evening I persuaded my husband Bruce to drive our dump truck below the nest tree and, with the help of a stepladder in the bed of the truck, I climbed up and looked into the nest. As I feared, the nest was empty but intact, an exquisite little sack wreathed in spider webs, mosses, lichens, dried leaves and grasses, and lined with tiny gray and white feathers.

Four days later, after houseguests had departed, I returned to the spruce grove. The male golden-crowned kinglet still sang vigorously in the lower part of the grove. I wandered about in the spruces, searching for the singer. Finally, I sat down under a spruce tree and heard and then saw him land in a nearby black locust tree, his crest a shining orange-red. Another golden-crowned kinglet answered him. It was the female and she had nesting material in her beak.

She hovered above me and as I looked up, I spotted the almost completed nest directly overhead. It was not as well-hidden as the first one but again it was suspended from the middle of a spruce branch, this time eight feet from the ground, and protected by overhanging spruce branches. I could scarcely believe my luck in finding their second nest too. Golden-crowned kinglets do build two separate nests for two separate nestings each season, and those that lose nests start building a new one the following day, which seems to be what my couple did.

Again, the kinglets were more secretive once the egg laying commenced but on July 15 I found a good, but distant, viewing area under a spruce tree. For over two weeks I watched as the female moved around on the nest or flew off to forage, almost always accompanied by her faithful, singing spouse.

On the 28th of July it was 92 degrees, humid and overcast and flies plagued me as I sat in my usual place. The kinglets had foraged together and then the female had settled back on the nest. Neither had food in their beaks so I assumed the eggs had not yet hatched.

The next day I flushed a flock of four turkey hens and 11 half-grown young foraging in the tall grass beneath the kinglet nest tree. Once again the nest area was ominously silent. I neither saw nor heard the kinglets again. After several days, I checked the nest. It was larger than the first, empty, and intact. Its lining of feathers included those of a northern cardinal and a ruffed grouse, both of which roost in the grove in the winter.

I was sad that the first known golden-crowned kinglet nesting in Blair County had ended in failure and I wondered what nest predators had been responsible. In Minnesota the Galatis’ birds lost eggs and young to red squirrels, gray jays, and blue jays. I suspected American crows or gray squirrels, both of which made frequent visits to the grove. Other studies found that adults were also preyed on by sharp-shinned hawks and eastern screech owls, species that I had also recorded in the grove during the year. I only hoped that whatever took the nest contents had not taken the parents too.

How I missed their songs and calls. Watching their two nesting attempts had been the high (and low) point of my summer. I knew that wintering golden-crowned kinglets would begin arriving here in early October and would stay throughout the winter, enriching my daily walks on even the dullest of winter days with their high-pitched tsee-tsee-tsee calls, and responding to my pishing by flying close and flashing their golden crowns. But had the winsome, pioneering parents survived? And if so, would they return and nest again in our spruce grove?