You often hear one fact when it comes to Goldcrests – that they weigh about the same as a 20p coin but still travel long distances. There is no doubt that this is a tiny little marvel that can brighten up the woodlands over the winter.
But, there has to be more to this bird than its Goldcrest and its small stature. They can make quite an impact on the woodland, especially in winter when numbers swell and are great fun to watch when we get the chance. The big question here is, where can we find these birds? Do they have any other special adaptations, and it is possible to feed them in our gardens?
What Does The Goldcrest Look Like?
The Goldcrest appears slightly dull grey/green and has a pale off white belly. In addition, the male Goldcrest sports a black and yellow stripe with a distinct orange centre. Female Goldcrest appear very similar but do not have the striking orange centre. Both male and female birds have very thin beaks.
A lot of birding sites and TV programmes do focus on the small size of this bird – and with good reason. An Adult Goldcrest, who can undertake some impressive feats in its lifetime, may weigh as little as 5g.
This can fluctuate depending on their fat reserves at certain times of the year, but it is a good average. This makes it the smallest bird in the UK. Meanwhile, for greater perspective, the Great Bustard is the heaviest in the UK at 6.8kg. They are much harder to miss on Salisbury Plains.
The name Goldcrest comes from this small bird’s most significant physical feature. Interestingly, the crest isn’t merely for some sort of breeding plumage or male dominance, unlike the brighter colours in so many other avian species.
Both the male and female birds will have a crest, so don’t assume that every bird that flits past is a male. There are still differences, as the males can have a brighter orange stripe in the middle. But, the females are still pretty bright. Otherwise, the plumage is pretty dull and standard for an arboreal bird. There is a greenish-brown colour to their backs and wings with a paler underside. This makes it look similar to some warbler species to a point.
Where Are You Most Likely To Find The Goldcrest In The UK?
Goldcrest favour forests and woodland with more cover and more places for them to feed. The wide range of coniferous or deciduous trees should provide a good habitat with plenty of food. But, of course, dense woodland is also home to predator species that will take advantage of them.
The best time to see a Goldcrest is in the winter. Some birds are resident here all year round, but this is when you will have a greater chance of spotting them. This is partly down to increases in numbers due to arrivals from other countries and increased feeding activity.
You will have a better chance of seeing one if you go out into a forest or local woodland, but they can be seen in parks and gardens too. So, if you sit on a park bench and wonder what that small flash of yellow was, you may have been lucky enough to get a brief encounter.
Why Does This Little Bird Make Such Impressive Migrations?
There are two significant groups of Goldcrest in the UK. Some are residents and will enjoy the comforts of the woodlands here all year round. Others will head here from overseas, which is why we can see much greater numbers in the winter.
The bird you see in your local patch could be a resident feeding up for the winter or one that has completed an impressive journey. It is hard to think of any bird this size deliberately travelling across the continent and large bodies of water. Yet, they frequently do and it isn’t unheard of for boats out at sea to spot these birds having a rest.
The lengths of these migrations made by the visiting birds are staggering. This 5g bird could spend the summer as far away as Russia, head across Northern Europe, cross the North Sea, and then stop in suitable British woodland.
It seems as though there would be suitable areas closer to their summer residence. But, they still make that journey reliably to be sure of the best conditions. Birds surveyed in this country by the BTO also originated from Norway, Sweden, Finland, and even Poland.
The Feeding Behaviour Of Goldcrests Makes Them Even More Difficult To Spot.
One of the most recognisable traits of a Goldcrest is how they jump from branch to branch and tree to tree, barely keeping still. This can be equally fascinating and frustrating whenever watching them in the wild as you get a flash of yellow on a tiny bird and it is hard to keep them in view with your camera or binoculars.
This behaviour is related to how they feed, they will jump around hunting as many small insects as possible. Their adaptations mean they can easily handle upright trunks and the underside of branches. This can be a broad range depending on what they find. In the winter, all kinds of flies and spiders will provide the nutrition they need. In spring, juicy caterpillars are a great addition and perfect for chicks.
How Do These Small Goldcrests Survive The Winter?
You may wonder how a bird as small as the Goldcrest can survive the winter. There seems to be hardly any fat reserve for it to rely upon and we can get some very cold snaps. The birds are able to build up some fat and use this when food is scarce. But, they can also eat a lot to fuel up and aren’t against huddling up for warmth if they need to.
There are suggestions that some birds may induce a state close to hyperthermia to lower their metabolism at night. However, this can be risky if they are unable to bring themselves back out. Their lifestyle in these slightly warmer regions should be enough to keep them safe from freezing to death. But, that doesn’t mean there isn’t also a risk of predation. Sparrowhawks and other species that favour small birds will take them where possible.
The Nesting Habits Of Goldcrests.
The Goldcrest will create a more spherical shape but still take the time to use the same spider silk from webs and cocoons for elasticity. Once the nest is complete and nicely hidden from view, the female will lay her eggs.
There are usually between 6 and 8 eggs in a clutch. These birds will grow in the nest, benefiting from regular feeds and a soft feather lining insulation, before fledging after about 18 days. This time period is dependent on weather, as it is better if these tiny youngsters don’t fly out into stormy conditions.
An average of six to eight eggs in a clutch sounds small for a little bird that needs to make sure it can sure up the population. However, these birds have the benefit of being serial nesters. This means that they will attempt to have as many broods as possible in one season to increase their chances of getting their genes into the next generation.
Not all eggs will hatch in one clutch, as some may not be viable or poorly incubated. Also, not all chicks will be strong enough to fledge or get their share of food. So, multiple broods mean better odds. Interestingly, this process is that there is an overlap between nests. The parents may have a similar structure nearby where the female lays a new clutch as the male continues feeding the nestlings.
Once they have fledged, they can focus on the newly hatched chicks in nest number two. The process continues until the end of spring. The best-case scenario here is that all eggs are successful and as many as 20 chicks survive into the summer.
What is the difference between Firecrests and Goldcrests?
As a general rule, both the Firecrest and Goldcrest appear very similar in appearance, but some distinct differences are. The Goldcrest appears a slightly duller grey/green and a pale belly, which appears white/grey in the Firecrest. In addition, although the Goldcrest has a similar black and yellow stripe on their head, they do not share the black/grey eye-stripe that appears on the Firecrest.
Learn more about Firecrest: Firecrest in the UK – Your Essential Guide
Goldcrests are wonderful little birds that we are lucky to spot, even for those brief seconds. But, it is always worth double-checking what you are looking at where possible. It is easy to assume that the bird is a Goldcrest based on its size and bright crest, when in fact, it is a Firecrest.
The Firecrest is from the same Regulus genus and has a lot in common with the Goldcrest. It is actually a little smaller, but not noticeably so unless side by side. The crest is usually bolder with a deep orange in the male, but this is still mistaken for that of the male Goldcrest. So, it helps to look at other aspects of the bird’s plumage.
If the bird looks a lot brighter than expected, with bronze tones, a stronger olive-brown, and a pale underside, it could be a Firecrest instead. A giveaway is a black stripe over the eye, which isn’t seen in Goldcrests.
Another physical difference between the two is their feet. You won’t get to see this unless examining a bird while ringing one, but the Goldcrest has a grooved foot with a longer hind toe. This smart adaptation makes it easier for the bird to grip pine needles and run around tree trunks as it chases prey.
The Firecrest wouldn’t have as much success with its smoother feet and shorter toe. But, that isn’t a problem because the Firecrest is after a different type of prey. They prefer to go for larger insects that are worth the hunt rather than large numbers of smaller creatures.
Their broader bills and facial bristles mean that they can grab hold of prey with ease, strike it against a branch to kill it, and not end up with any sort of eye injury. With that in mind, while you can see Goldcrests feeding in your garden in winter, the 100% insectivorous diet of the Firecrest and its preferences make it unlikely to stop on a bird table.
Can We Feed Goldcrests In The Garden In Winter?
The good news for those who want to feed these birds in your garden is that they are not uncommon. Goldcrest will make use of food resources in gardens where they can go to supplement their feeding. Their love of small insects means that they will happily take mealworms from a bird table – as long as there is enough nearby cover to escape to.
Their need for a good fat reserve also means they will take suet and pieces of fat balls from tables, but they won’t do so from feeders. A good option is to make a fat ball mix yourself and add in mealworms and other helpful ingredients.
You may wish to put out cheese cubes on colder days to help out further. Keep this in mind in late January when it is time for the RSPB garden bird watching scheme. It may help tempt the Goldcrest in to add to your count.
Make Room For This Tiny Little Bird And Enjoy Its Antics.
The Goldcrest is a special little visitor to our gardens in winter and one we shouldn’t take for granted. There are no guarantees that they will come to feed on our tables, so we should savour the moments that they do and make an effort to provide the best possible food for them.
Even if they are getting more common across the UK with the warmer weather, they are still tiny fidgety birds that don’t like to hang around. So take the time to go looking for them in the wild over winter to watch this foraging behaviour for yourself.