For the Birds Radio Program: Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Original Air Date: April 13, 1989

Laura talks about a magical encounter with a tiny songbird.

(Reworked from April 22, 1987)

Audio missing


(Redone in April, 2000)

(Recording of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet)

The Ruby-crowned Kinglet is one of the tiniest of all songbirds, weighing about one-fifth or even one-sixth of an ounce–half as much as a chickadee. You could mail five of them with a single postage stamp! But what the Ruby-crowned Kinglet lacks in size he more than makes up for in liveliness. Each pair produces 7-9 eggs each year. The nest is so tiny, made of lichens and spider silk, that the eggs have to be set in in two layers. As the eggs hatch and babies grow, that spider silk will stretch to accommodate the growing family.

The female sits still to incubate, but the male is always on the move–flitting from branch to branch gleaning insect eggs and larvae, and flicking his wings constantly. The only time he holds still for more than a second or two is when he bursts into song. As if to compensate for his tiny size, the Ruby-crowned Kinglet’s song is among the loudest of all songbirds. He always begins with two or three very high pitched notes, and then bursts into a jumble of warbling notes which some patriotic but imaginitive ornithologist once transcribed as liberty liberty liberty.

(Recording of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet)

The Ruby-crowned Kinglet belongs to the Old World Warbler family, which was named for the rich warbling songs of many of its species. This family is completely unrelated to North American warblers, which were named by homesick Europeans who missed their familiar little songsters. Unfortunately, most New World Warblers have thin, buzzy songs and don’t warble at all.

The Ruby-crowned Kinglet is not brightly colored like many of its European relatives. It’s an olive-gray bird with conspicuous white wingbars and a white ring around each eye which makes it look cross-eyed if you look at it straight on. Only adult males have a ruby crown, and they keep it hidden under gray feathers unless they are displaying to another kinglet. Most bird-watchers have never even seen the crown, but that’s mostly because most bird-watchers stop watching a bird the moment they’ve identified it. In spring, most kinglets seen are males, because they’re the ones that sing, calling attention to themselves, and if you keep a singing bird in view for a few minutes, he’s bound to show off his ruby crown sooner or later.

The best thing about kinglets is how tame they are. A Ruby-crown landed right on my index finger one frosty morning at dawn when we lived in Madison, Wisconsin–my fingers were stiff from the cold but I’ll never forget the feel of his minute claws grasping my finger. His brown little eyes met mine for a magical moment, and then he hopped onto a bush and sang a quick song, his crown glittering in the pink dawn sun. When the song was over, he returned to the busy life of a kinglet, searching for bugs and forging onward to the northern spruce forest, keeping just ahead of the real warmth of spring. But he left me with the same quiet joy that Robert Frost describes in his poem “Two Look at Two”:

Still they stood,
A great wave from it going over them,
As if the earth in one unlooked-for favor
Had made them certain earth returned their love.

(Recording of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet)

That was Robert Frost, this is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”