My breath hung in white plumes as I stood watching the sun slip over the eastern horizon. The bitter cold kept the morning songbirds at bay for the most part. However, between the cold air, silence, and steaming coffee, the exuberant call of one familiar winter resident caught my attention. He danced weightlessly from the tip of one twig to the tip of another while singing to the frosty morning with the confidence of a spring blue bird. A ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula), one of the few warblers that over-winters here in the southeast, was one of the first birds to greet the day. Their call is unmistakably loud and musical, especially from a bird no larger than one’s thumb. Enthusiasm of that magnitude is difficult to ignore, especially from such a small package.
Like most species of warbler, the ruby-crowned kinglet is often shy of urban areas. It is best to look for them in deciduous or mixed forests from mid-November through March. The male is a handsome fellow: a light olive green, with yellow highlights on his primary wing feathers, a light-yellow throat, two white wing bars and, you guessed it, a ruby crown, which is often tough to distinguish unless the bird is excited. Another diagnostic feature of the ruby-crowned is that they have a curious habit of nervously flicking their wings. They often feed with chickadees and titmice around six feet off the ground, gleaning insects from the tips of branches. Being so small, they have found their ecological niche in picking food from branches and leaves that are too small for other birds to land on. Why compete for food when you can under-weigh the competition? Also, because of their insectivorous feeding habit, they are not likely to visit your bird feeder, which does seem to add something to their allure.
Ruby-crowned kinglets are one of those unassuming little critters that adds cheer to the austerity of winter woods. So next time you think of a frosty morning as dreary, stop and take a look around, and if you’re lucky, a ruby-crowned may just remind you that frost is no match for enthusiasm!
Hunter S. Bridges