Ruby-crowned Kinglets are tiny birds with big appeal |

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More than a quarter of a century has passed since I discovered the Ruby-crowned Kinglet. The wren is one of the smallest birds living in Alaska. He’s also one of the most impressive singers in our state! There’s a good reason the Crown Ruby has earned a reputation in some Alaskan birding circles as “the little bird with the big voice.”

I can’t say it was love at first sight – or a first song – but the Ruby-crowned Kinglet quickly became one of my favorite birds once it was brought to my attention in the mid-1980s. 1990.

For more than half a century, I didn’t know such a creature existed. But truth be told, I could say that about most birds. They just weren’t on my radar until the early 1990s when black-capped chickadees changed my life (a story I’ve shared before and will probably tell again in a future essay). For now, I’ll just note that an intimate and delightful encounter with a group of Hillside chickadees in December 1993 showed me some of what I had been missing for over five decades, and I wanted more.

In the months and years to come, I have made it my business to find out more about my avian neighbors. And a whole new world opened up. Although I learned about the many types of birds that we humans share the Alaskan landscape with, songbirds quickly became my favorites.

It didn’t take long to learn the identity of the few common songbirds that reside in Alaska year-round. But once spring arrived and migrating species started showing up, things got a lot tougher. So how on earth does a budding Alaskan birder learn to tell one sparrow from another? And these warblers, wow, can they be confusing!

What worked best for me in those early days of songbird hunting was going on early morning bird walks led by local experts. Being around people who really knew the voices and shapes of songbird species, both resident and migratory, made my foray into ornithology possible.

Over time, these guided outings, combined with my feeding activities, my walks with knowledgeable friends and what might be called “independent research”, have helped me learn more about the birds. singers who live in Anchorage. For example, I began to notice the order and timing of different migrants, the habitat they are most likely to find, the foods they eat, and the sometimes subtle differences between the songs and calls of the different species.

Without intending to, I also found myself developing favorites. While chickadees have remained my all-time favorite birds, the ruby-crowned kinglet is at the top of my migratory passerines.

One of the first things I learned about Ruby-crowned Kinglets is that they are often difficult to spot, especially for beginners. This is partly because the bird is so small; weighing less than a third of an ounce, it is about four inches long, smaller than some hummingbirds.

Beyond that, ruby ​​crowns prefer the upper parts of trees, making them difficult to find except when perched on top, as males sometimes do when singing. And their general coloration is rather simple, even dull. For this reason, it is probably one of the species that I have already categorized as LGB (little gray bird).

The bird’s head and back are olive, its underparts greyish (although the birds also have white eye-rings and white wingbars). And while the males have red crown feathers – hence the name – they are only revealed when the bird is excited by a potential mate, rival or threat.

While walking through the spruce forest, I once saw two ruby-crowned males chattering loudly through the trees, their crests erect high and flashing bright red. But when they’re not restless or excited, even the males blend in well with the forest — except, of course, when singing.

Although its size is small and its coloring can be largely unremarkable, the ruby-crowned kinglet has other traits that set it apart from its woodland neighbors. One is his hyperactive nature. The ruby ​​crowns are constantly fluttering, opening and closing their wings as if nervous. Even when singing in the treetops, the males continually change position.

And then there is the voice, one of the strongest in the forest. Once learned, the Ruby Crown’s long and complex whistled melody (some field guides say “scrambled”) is easily recognizable, as is its tendency to sometimes get “stuck” on certain parts of the song and repeat them over and over. and again, like a broken record.

When the male ruby ​​crowns sing, their whole body seems to quiver with effort – and, I like to think, with passion.

This song is what I like the most about the ruby-crowned kinglets. For those who pay attention, their loud, bright voices herald the arrival of spring just as much as the horns of Canada geese, the roaring cries of sandhill cranes and the hiccuping songs of wood frogs. The songs tell me that the wrens are back for another nesting season, that we share the landscape again. They serve as another connection to this place I call home, remind me to pay attention to what is happening around me, and tell me to live with enthusiasm.

Once I started tracking them in earnest in the late 1990s, I learned that ruby-crowned ones are among the first migratory songbirds to announce themselves each spring. This year, ruby-crowned kinglets revealed themselves to me on April 25, nearly a week before I heard the first songs of junco, thrush or robin.

Their reliable position among the first migratory birds to reach Anchorage (songbirds or otherwise) made me wonder about their travels outside of Alaska. It turned out that little was known about the migratory patterns of Alaskan Ruby-crowned Kinglets, except that they usually arrive in April and depart in October.

When I first inquired, local birders told me that Ruby Wreaths from the Anchorage area likely spent their winters in the western United States, Mexico, or even Central America. Although small numbers sometimes overwinter here) and then move up the west coast in small mixed groups. They range across much of Alaska, limited only by their need for coniferous forests in which pairs nest and raise their young and even reside above the Arctic Circle.

Because they prefer to nest high in spruce and other conifers, the nesting behavior of ruby ​​crowns is equally difficult to study. However, research suggests that they build hanging nests of mosses, grasses, twigs, and sometimes even moose hair suspended from tree branches like basket hangers. Females lay four to 10 eggs, a surprisingly large clutch for such a small bird. Incubation lasts about two weeks and fledging occurs 16 days later. In early July, young Ruby Crowns test their wings all over Anchorage.

If the online research I did in preparation for this column is any indication, not much more has been learned about the migratory journeys of Alaskan ruby ​​crowns in the roughly quarter century since I searched for answers for the first time. However, I came across a 2019 report prepared by the Alaska Center for Conservation Science that indicates that two subspecies of crown ruby ​​inhabit Alaska.

The most widespread subspecies, Regulus calendula calendula, has a breeding range extending from the Cook Inlet area north to the Brooks Range. In contrast, the other Regulus calendula grinelli is found in the southernmost coastal areas of Alaska.

What exactly distinguishes the two subspecies (besides their geographic differences) is not explained in the report, and so far I have been unable to uncover any such distinctions in my online browsing. Obviously, more personal research is needed before my next ruby ​​crown report!

Such research will be more fun than work because I love learning tidbits about the lives of the Ruby-crowned Kinglets whose beautiful voices lifted my spirits and opened me to wonder. Whether on a walk in the forest with Denali or friends who love bird watching, I anticipate the sweet song of the ruby ​​crown, and listen to it with great pleasure.

Anchorage naturalist writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill can do so at [email protected]

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