Springtime is the best time. It's the season of rebirth, renewal, and rejuvenation. As the snow and ice slowly fades away becoming yet a distant memory, migrant songbirds and other species of wild birds continue trickling northward and arriving in our backyards, fields and forests.
Indeed, just a few sunny evenings ago while sitting and enjoying the warmth on my snowless deck watching and listening to various birds-dark-eyed juncos, song sparrows, American goldfinches, red-winged blackbirds, common snipe, American robins, black-capped chickadees, and many more-I was thrilled to also hear the heartily delivered song of the diminutive ruby-crowned kinglet reverberating from the canopy of a nearby oak tree. A moment later I saw the tiny titan fly to the top of another tree to continue its surprisingly loud and beautiful song.
Ruby-crowned kinglets happen to be one of our tiniest birds at not much more than 4 inches long from beak to tail and scarcely a quarter-ounce in weight. Interestingly, for such pint-size proportions, female ruby-crowned kinglets lay one of the largest clutches of eggs. Clutch sizes average eight eggs and as many as 12 eggs in a nest have been observed, too.
Actually, two species of kinglets inhabit northern Minnesota forests. The golden-crowned kinglet, even smaller than the ruby-crowned, seems to prefer coniferous forests, whereas the ruby-crowned kinglet tend to be found in mixed woodlands. Even so, both birds are frequently observed in mixed coniferous and deciduous forests.
As both species of kinglets' names imply, identification is aided by the color of their crowns. But don't expect to see the red top of the ruby-crowned kinglet very easily. In fact, it's almost invisible unless the male raises its head-feathers to expose the scarlet patch. He does this when he's agitated, as when he defends his territory and while he sings. Otherwise, the plumage coloration of ruby-crowned kinglets is rather drab. They resemble flycatchers and vireos in color, size, and behavior.
Both species of kinglets are insectivores. In the case of ruby-crowned kinglets, ants and flying insects are regular summertime prey. Other insects, spiders, insect eggs, and some seeds and fruit are also consumed. It's very common to observe these species of kinglets hovering and gleaning insects from the ends of branches and between the needles of conifers. The small birds flit about like tiny, feathered darts as they search for food.
The song of a singing male ruby-crowned kinglet is a song to behold, though difficult to describe in words, it is, simply put, one of the most magnificent of avian songs. And though both male and female sing, it is the male of the species that belts out the most improbably loud, varied and melodious song.
Male ruby-crowned kinglets like to sing their lively three-part song from lofty perches. The song begins with a few high-pitched "tsee" notes, followed by a half-dozen or so lower-pitched "churr" notes, and culminates with a beautifully rich and rolling string of warbled phrases. His song is sung repeatedly and tirelessly.
As such, if you hear the song of a ruby-crowned kinglet, stop and remain very still. Chances are good that you'll hear its song again and maybe even observe him singing. But think small and look high when you search. In fact, now and until leaf-out is the best time for observing these and other neotropical migrant songbirds.
Other notable features of ruby-crowned kinglets aside from their small size include both physical and behavioral traits. A greenish and gray-colored bird that you'll immediately recognize as being smaller than warblers and chickadees, you'll also note that the species rarely sits still for long. High-strung and energetic, ruby-crowned kinglets are constantly on the move and only stopping to sing and roost. Diagnostic behavioral and physical characteristics include constantly flicking their wings, a white eye-ring, white bars on their wings, and of course the normally hidden bright red crown of the male when he erects it.
Lucky we are that the diverse habitats throughout Minnesota attracts such a dizzying diversity of birds, and the ruby-crowned kinglet is just one of many. Our forests and woodlands are made all the more pleasant with the songs and activities of this delightful species of wild bird as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.