British Wildlife of the Week
Goldcrest and Firecrest
Two birds vie for the title of Britain’s smallest bird. The goldcrest and the firecrest are both hyperactive little feather-balls, with high-pitched, needling calls and, as their names suggest, colourful crests on their heads. Being so small, they lose heat rapidly and need a constant intake of fuel to keep going. They are therefore almost constantly on the move, flitting energetically about to catch tiny flies and spiders, using their thin beaks like tweezers to pluck them from between the needles of conifer trees.
Of the two, the goldcrest (seen in the image at the top of the page) is generally the smaller – just. This bird is a mere 9 cm long and weighs just 5 grams, the same as a 20 pence coin or an A4 sheet of paper (a blue tit, by comparison, weighs twice as much). This makes the goldcrest not only the smallest bird in Britain but also the smallest bird in the whole of Europe. The two sexes look similar, although the male’s yellow crown stripe has an orange centre, while it is entirely yellow in the female.
The related firecrest also has a fiery crown (bright yellow in the female; mainly orange in the male) and is about the same size as the goldcrest, but it is marginally bulkier, sometimes weighing up to 7 grams. It is also far scarcer than the goldcrest, and more elusive. A relative newcomer to the list of British breeding birds, the first firecrest nest was only recorded here in 1962, in the New Forest. Since then, its numbers have increased and today there may be as many as 1,000 breeding pairs in the country.
Both goldcrests and firecrests are at their most numerous in autumn and winter. This is because their numbers are swollen by visitors from northern Europe and Russia. For these tiny, colourful sprites, crossing the North Sea expends significant energy resources. In fact, the journey was once considered physically impossible for such small, seemingly fragile creatures, and because they arrived on our shores at around the same time as wintering woodcocks, some people believed that goldcrests hitched a lift on the backs of the larger waders. For that reason, an old English name for the goldcrest was ‘woodcock pilot.’
The song of the goldcrest is so high pitched that it can be virtually inaudible to some people. It’s one of the first songs that older birdwatchers may begin to fail to hear, so although some bird monitoring schemes suggest that goldcrest populations are declining, an alternative explanation is that the community of bird surveyors may simply have ageing ears!
In the next British Wildlife of the Week, we’ll be looking at another small bird that, despite being fairly common at the time, was only recognised as a resident British breeding bird towards the very end of Queen Victoria’s reign – the willow tit.