Tale of Two Kinglets: Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Updated: Apr. 16, 2024

Summer residents of boreal and more temperate montane forests, the ruby-crowned kinglet and golden-crowned kinglet share many similarities.

Are Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets Related?

08 Jeffweymier Bbam18Courtesy Jeff Weymier
Ruby-crowned kinglet

Summer residents of boreal and temperate montane forests, the ruby-crowned kinglet and golden-crowned kinglet share many similarities in behavior and appearance.

“They’re both really tiny,” explains ornithologist Ed Pandolfino, PhD. And both birds have small, sharp black bills. However, due to a taxonomic revision, the two are not as closely related as they once were thought to be.

Couypc20 Gary Botello 022Courtesy Gary Botello
Golden-crowned kinglet

“The ruby-crowned is in its own genus,” explains Ed, noting it was classified with the other kinglets in Regulus for many years before being restored as the only member of the genus Corthylio. While the kinglets are still distantly connected, it’s also interesting to note that the golden-crowned kinglet is more closely related to the Goldcrest, an Old World species.

Despite this new designation, it helps to understand their physical characteristics and habits to appreciate these vivacious little insect-eaters.

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What Does a Golden-crowned Kinglet Look Like?

13 Hank Ohme Bbxsep23Courtesy Hank Ohme
Look for a strip of bright orange on a male’s crown

Ed notes that the male and female have the emblematic golden crown, but the male’s crown has fiery orange in the middle of the gold. Both are olive green on top and gray on the bottom with a white wing stripe. Measuring shy of 4-inches long and weighing a mere 0.1 to 0.3 ounces, they’re often difficult to spot when they’re high in the treetops.

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Golden-crowned Kinglet Range and Habitat

14 Wendyhawcutt Bbxmay18Courtesy Wendy Hawcutt
These birds can survive extremely cold temperatures.

Golden-crowned kinglets prefer conifer forests, especially old growth areas, as well as along the northeastern mountains of the U.S. Ed says even though they are very tiny, they are surprisingly cold tolerant. “They will often winter where they breed,” he says, noting that while many migrate to lower elevations or more southerly locations, there are populations that over-winter as far north as Maine, where temperatures plunge to -40F.

There is speculation on how they survive these extreme conditions, although they’ve been observed seeking shelter in a tree cavity and huddling together.

Nesting Habits of Golden-crowned Kinglets

A Pair of Golden Crowned Kinglets on an Oak TreeSara Srinivasan/Getty Images
Females and males help each other at nesting time.

As monogamous pairs, the male stakes out their territory by flaring his crown, singing, and giving rapid “tseee” vocalizations. The nest is situated up to 60-feet high in a conifer treetop, typically close to the trunk. Both parents aid in the construction of the 3-inch high and 3-inch wide nest formed of mosses, lichens and soft materials, and raise two broods of three to 11 whitish eggs with light brown and lavender speckles.

During incubation and nesting the female remains on the nest while the male provides food for her and the brood, which fledge between 17 and 19 days.

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What Do Golden-crowned Kinglets Eat?

The golden-crowned kinglet (Regulus satrapa) on the feederKarel Bock/Getty Images
These birds might visit suet feeders in backyards

“They’re tiny birds with tiny bills, so they’re not really going to focus on seeds,” says Ed. “If you want to attract them to your garden, they are insectivores.” Growing native plants and not using pesticides helps create a conducive habitat. He also recommends a suet feeder or placing mealworms on a tray for a treat.

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Golden-crowned Kinglet Songs and Calls

Bird songs courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology 

With a series high-pitched notes within their vocal repertoire, the song golden-crowned kinglets is sometimes one of the first birds missed as people lose their hearing. There are approximately 14 different calls and songs ranging from a series of “tsee-tsee-tsees” to high, thread-like notes.

What Does a Ruby-crowned Kinglet Look Like?

352449960 1 Bryan Barrow Bnb Pc 2023Courtesy Bryan Barrow
The red crown is visible on males

The male and female are both olive-green with white eye rings and white wing bars, but only the males sport the distinctive red crown. “They are feisty little birds,” says Ed, who notes that when they’re agitated, the males flare their bright ruby crest.

The red crown is hidden most of the time—those red crown feathers are usually concealed among the other head feathers, and they only become prominent when the bird is excited or alarmed.

These kinglets are easily spotted because of their frenetic behavior, including constantly flicking their wings.

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Ruby-crowned Kinglet Range and Habitat

Bnbbyc19 Tom SoetaertCourtesy Tom Soetaert
These small birds breed in forests

During the summer breeding months, the ruby-crowned kinglets occupy boreal forests from Alaska to the Atlantic coast and the forests of the Western mountains. The ruby-crowned tends to prefer more open forests than the golden-crowned, though both species prefer to be near water.

In the winter, ruby-crowned kinglets vacate the higher elevations and northern latitudes. Ed says, “They migrate to lower elevations of the Western and Southern half of the U.S. and into Mexico.

Nesting Habits of Ruby-crowned Kinglets

When it comes to building the nest, the female chooses the site, which is often high up in the tree, and constructs the dual-layered structure using moss, twigs, spiderwebs, feathers and plant materials. The end result is a globe-shaped nest measuring 4-inches across and up to 6-inches long.

Instead of fighting, they use their loud vocalizations to ward off unwanted intruders into their territory, and the pair remains together for two months, long enough to send the young from the nest.

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What Do Ruby-crowned Kinglets Eat?

309186783 1 Jamie Sommerdorf Bnb Pc 2022Courtesy Jamie Sommerdorf
These birds are primarily insect-eaters but they occasionally feed on berries.

Ruby-crowned kinglets will hover and pluck aphids, ants and other insects off of leaves and branches. When insects aren’t as abundant, they’ll sometimes feed upon seeds and fruit, such as poison oak berries.

In the backyard, they also visit suet feeders. “If you’re going to put up suet, look for ones of the cages that have small openings,” says Ed, recommending this as a good way to discourage jays.

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Ruby-crowned Kinglet Songs and Calls

Bird songs courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology 

“They tend to be very vocal,” says Ed. Their calls lean towards more of a harsh, two-part chatter, and their musical songs start off with soft, high-pitched notes, then increase in volume and complexity. Though each individual male sings only one song, those songs vary from place to place throughout their range.

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About the Expert

Devoted to birds for over 30 years, Ed Pandolfino‘s accomplishments include publishing dozens of peer-reviewed scientific articles, two books, and serving as president of Western Field Ornithologists, vice-president of San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory, along with a myriad of other bird-related organizations.


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