While there is little research explaining why they sing or how they learn, the Golden-Crowned Kinglet sings a high pitched song. Click here to eavesdrop on one of them singing! Its song consists of up to 14 ‘tsee’ notes (All About Birds), occasionally followed by a warble that drops down as much as an octave in pitch (All About Birds). Robert and Carlyn Galati observed that this drop in pitch had a variation with a “chattery, harsh warble” at the end (Galati and Galati 1985). In his 1993 paper, Christopher Naugler reports recording between two and five distinct calls. He assigned each syllable a letter designation, and found that simpler songs utilized the most common syllable, called “A.” He also found that in Golden-Crowned Kinglet populations in New York, the more complex syllable F was omitted, whereas in populations in New Jersey the two simplest syllables, A and B, were not observed (Naugler 1993). This could suggest a dialect between the two populations. Naugler, however, points out that it could also be error stemming from a small sample size of Golden-Crowned Kinglet songs.
Both male and females sing while constructing their nest, but males may also sing for territory defense (Swanson et al. 2010). In his 1991 study of Golden-Crowned Kinglets in Michigan, Robert Galati hypothesized that simpler songs were used in individual’s antagonistic behavior, and more complex songs were used for proclaiming territory (Galati 1991). However, Naugler observes that individuals enlist a variety of different consecutive songs for those same behaviors (Naugler 1993). When singing for territory defense, the Golden-Crowned Kinglet will lean forward and flick its tail and wings (Kaufmann). Galati and Galati observed that in July and August, after nesting had been completed, territorial singing occurred much less frequently (Galati and Galati 1985).
While the song of the golden-crowned kinglet is quite distinctive, Ficken describes how calls are shared in mixed-species flocks. Acoustic structure and sometimes call delivery are similar in the golden-crowned kinglet, the brown creeper, and the Mexican chickadee. The ruby-crowned kinglet, a close relative, shares call structure with the titmouse. Ficken hypothesizes that these shared calls may facilitate mobbing in these interspecies flocks (2000).
Others have researched how human intrusion can alter the seasonal timing of song in ruby-crowned kinglets. Singing usually occurs early in the breeding season to stimulate females to lay eggs, and is learned from the parents by young males later in the season. This means that timing of egg laying, which is stimulated by song, is vitally important. (Gutzwiller et al. 1997). Gutzwiller’s study showed that a human just walking through kinglet habitat on a weekly basis caused ruby-crowned kinglets to start singing up to 11 days earlier than normal. These are conservative estimates based on minimal intrusion, however, and it is necessary to further investigate how human behavior can affect singing and possibly reproductive behaviors in kinglets. On the island of Madeira, the variety of songs ruby-crested kinglets sing is markedly smaller than its European counterparts (Packert 2001). Packert attributes this to the colonization of Madeira, during which human settlement reduced the window of time available to young males to learn their song. To compensate, Madeiran firecrests use vocalizations that more closely resemble innate calls than learned songs (Packert 2001).
The singing life of the Golden-Crowned Kinglet is a neglected pocket in the scientific community. There are many directions researchers could take. Future research should focus on determining exactly how many different songs these birds sing, whether there are dialects between populations, and attempting to discover how these birds learn their song. Future research should also focus on determining which songs are truly used for which aggressive behaviors, since Naugler’s observations and Galati’s observations didn’t agree on whether simple songs were for proclaiming territory or individual aggressive encounters.
Ficken, M.S. 2000. Call similarities among mixed species flock associates. Southwestern Naturalist 45 (2): 154-8.
Galati, Carlyn, Galati, Robert. 1985. Breeding of the golden-crowned kinglet in northern Minnesota. Journal of Field Ornithology 1: 28-40.
Golden-crowned kinglet (n.d.) In All About Birds. Retrieved from www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Golden-crowned_Kinglet/sounds.
Gutzwiller, Kevin J., Kroese, Elizabeth A., Anderson, Stanley H., Wilkins, Charles A. 1997. Does human intrusion alter the seasonal timing of avian song? The Auk. 1: 55-65.
Kaufman, Kenn (n.d.) Golden-crowned kinglet. In Audubon Field Guide. Retrieved from www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/golden-crowned-kinglet.
Naugler, C. T. 1993. Vocalizations of the Golden-crowned Kinglet in eastern North America. J. Field Ornithol. no. 64:346-351
Packert, M. 2001. Vocalisations of Firecrests from the islands of Madeira and Mallorca (Regulus ignicapillus madeirensis, R-i. balearicus). JOURNAL FUR ORNITHOLOGIE. 1:16-29.
Swanson, David L., James L. Ingold and Robert Galati. 2012. Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.doi.org/10.2173/bna.301