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Otto: Kinglets: Fluttering regally among the branches

It’s little king, or kinglet, season in Kane County.
It’s little king, or kinglet, season in Kane County.

“Long live the king!”

Dutch folks everywhere cheered this past week as their much-beloved Queen Beatrix abdicated the throne to her son, Willem-Alexander. He became the Netherlands’ first king in more than 120 years – a historic happening indeed. 

Bells tolled, tens of thousands of people erupted in emotional applause. And I missed the entire thing.

Granted, the ceremony took place in Amsterdam – not exactly a part of the Tri-Cities.

But I have a feeling even if the event happened in downtown St. Charles, I may have been clueless. Because the sorts of royals I tend to focus on are hardly the newsmaking type.  

Yep, I’m talking Regulus, or “little kings,”  also known as ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets. 

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been seeing both kinglet species in Norris Woods, as well as the Hickory Knolls Natural Area in St. Charles. A few bold individuals even ventured out to the Discovery Center parking lot, where they flitted from tree to tree in search of a meal, or two or three.

Although these birds are olive-drab in color, not to mention tiny (golden crowns weigh about as much as two pennies, ruby crowns about as much as two nickels), I find watching them almost addictive. One second you see them, the next second you don’t, the third second you see them and six others who’ve just flown in. Then, in a wink, they’ve all moved on. Maddening, yes, but enthralling too.

And sort of easy to identify. Even if you don’t have time to focus on color or shape, you surely can spot the kinglets’ conspicuous foraging behavior. Amid much flapping and hopping around, these insect specialists use their narrow beaks to glean aphids, spiders and maybe an occasional berry from trees and shrubs. 

In fact, even when they aren’t looking for a snack, these little guys are in motion, flicking their wings and squiggling around like a sugared-up kid (or naturalist) that can’t sit still.

Such behavior provides a clue to the birds’ metabolism, which is extremely high. That internal furnace needs near-constant fueling; it’s been said that kinglets will starve if deprived of food for even an hour.

This time of year, the birds’ energy demands are especially high. Migration flights and the impending breeding season put even more demand on that metabolism.

Toss in this spring’s unseasonably cool temperatures, and you’ve got some birds whose food requirements are off the charts.

Luckily, as species that breed in northern spruce and pine forests, kinglets are no strangers to cold. Golden crowns, whose breeding territory stretches up into northern Canada, have developed some especially interesting reproductive strategies to deal with such extreme conditions.

For one, they build their nests on the underside of spruce branches, thus equipping their home with a sturdy roof. If it snows, all the better – the white stuff makes an excellent insulating layer.

For another, they produce very large clutches, as many as 11 eggs stacked in two layers in the tiny nest. And that’s where things get really interesting.

Once the female begins incubating, the male takes on the role of caterer, bringing food to his mate and, eventually, his new family. But then, just when the young are no longer in need of brooding – or warming by the female – and you think Mom will get a few minutes to herself, she takes off and starts a completely new nest.

This phenomenon called double-clutching is an adaptation to the northern territory’s short summer season. It also helps golden-crowned kinglets reproduce in sufficiently high numbers that their mortality rate, which also is high, doesn’t wipe the species out.

If seeing a kinglet would make your day, head out now to any of the high-quality woodlands that dot Kane County and keep your eyes open. Sometimes it helps to find a flock of chickadees first; kinglets will often associate with them while foraging.

The birds are tiny, yes, and drab, and the chances of seeing their namesake “crowns” are hit or miss – especially with the rubies. In this species (which actually is quite genetically different from the golden crowns) only the male wears the crown – a bright orange-red dot on the top of his head. Further complicating matters, he tends to keep it hidden, flashing it only occasionally.

Should you catch a glimpse of kinglets, whether ruby crowned or golden, watch them as they flutter regally among the branches. Then wish them well as they embark on their long journey ahead.

“Long live the king … let!”

• Pam Otto is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a facility of the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at or 630-513-4346.

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