The Typist in the Tree

Ruby Crowned Kingly, left with crown, right normal. Photos by Tom Grey.
Ruby Crowned Kingly, left with crown, right normal. Photos by Tom Grey.

Relaxed Kinglet (Photos courtesy of Tom Grey)

For those of us old enough to remember typewriters, it can be a surprise to hear the classic clickety-click sounds coming from tree branches overhead. If you look up quickly you may spot the “typist”: a tiny olive-tan bird called the Ruby-Crowned Kinglet. Not much larger than a hummingbird, this is the Energizer Bunny of the bird world, frenetically flitting from branch to branch, never staying put. If you can focus on the little sprite for a moment, you’ll see a prominent white eye-ring, which gives it a big-eyed appearance, and two pale white wing bars edged by a dark bar behind. If you’re really close, you’ll see that it has yellow feet.

It would be wonderful if this Kinglet lived up to the “Ruby-crowned” part of its name more consistently, but it’s entirely possible for a bird watcher to go for a long time without seeing this feature. It took this writer two years of effort. Only males have the crown, which is usually hidden. It appears only when the bird is excited or annoyed, and momentarily raises a few tiny but bright red feathers on the top of his head. Seeing this for the first time is a thrill no one forgets.

Kinglets leave their chilly northern breeding grounds to winter in the milder southern and coastal regions of the United States. They arrive in Sonoma County in October and stay into spring. Kinglets prefer shrubby habitats, deciduous forests, parks, and suburbs. They often form mixed flocks with other small birds such as chickadees, warblers, titmice, and nuthatches and meander through the trees and shrubs looking for food.

Kinglets eat mostly insects, hovering and gleaning them from leaves and branches. Seeds, including those of poison oak, make up a small part of their diet. They come to suet feeders and display a very big attitude in proportion to their diminutive size, handily displacing larger birds.

Very unusual for a small songbird, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet family may start with as many as 12 eggs. Kinglet nests, located in tall conifers, are created from grass, feathers, moss, and spider webs, a combination that gives them the elasticity to expand as the brood grows.

Oddly, there is a nearly identical but completely unrelated bird in our area, the Hutton’s Vireo. The two species do overlap a bit in Oakmont, but the Ruby-Crowned Kinglets are mostly here in the winter, and the Vireos in the summer. (More on Vireos another time.)

Like birds and bird watching? Join the Oakmont Birders mailing list by contacting bkendrick@jps.net. Share what you’re seeing. Hear about occasional bird walks. Questions about birds? Want a “Birds Seen in Oakmont” checklist? Send an e-mail.

Excited Kinglet

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