BTO Garden Bird of the Month – November: Goldcrest

Discover all you need to know about the smallest bird in Europe. 

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goldcrest
John Harding/BTO

Discover all you need to know about the smallest bird in Europe. 

The goldcrest weighs around 5g, about the same as a 5p coin.

Associated with coniferous forests, goldcrests are almost entirely insectivorous and make the most of their light weight by foraging in places where larger birds can’t go, like at the very end of small branches.

Given their size, it is hard to believe that some goldcrests migrate to the UK from northern Europe, making them one of the lightest bird species in the world to migrate over the sea.

Due to the long journey it comes as no surprise that some stop halfway during their migration. Historically they have been known to use fishing boats, but these days they’re just as likely to use oil rigs found in the North Sea.

British breeding goldcrests don’t usually leave our shores, but they are known to move around within the country. Juveniles will disperse locally and some Scottish birds will move south of the border for the winter months. 

However, these minute birds have been recorded as travelling even further. For example, one goldcrest that was ringed in Runcorn, Cheshire, was found 233km southwest the next spring near Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire.

Surviving the winter

The colder it is, and the longer the night, the more fat reserves goldcrests use up.

In fact they can use anything up to the equivalent of 20 per cent of their body weight. Therefore, goldcrests will often roost together at nighttime, reducing their heat loss, and then feed all day to replenish their fat reserves.

Unfortunately, in very cold winters up to 80 per cent of goldcrests might die by the spring. Thankfully, occasional mild winters and the great effort the species puts into breeding gives the population an opportunity to recover.

This diminutive bird can lay up to 12 eggs (the average is 6-8), which is equivalent to one and a half times the female’s own body weight.

Once the eggs have hatched, the female will usually lay a second clutch in a different nest while the male continues to feed the first brood.  

© John Harding

A goldcrest and chicks © John Harding

Your chance of seeing a goldcrest increases during the spring and autumn when migrants are passing through, but goldcrests are found in gardens all year round according to the BTO Garden BirdWatch survey. 

However, as they generally ignore our bird feeders, we rarely see them. During this time of year they need to keep their energy reserves up, so if you're lucky you might see one feeding on a fat ball.

How to recognise a goldcrest

Goldcrests are no more than 9cm long – an obvious giveaway.

Their plumage is olive on top and buff-white below.

The wings are darker and have two white wing bars.

The crown, or ‘crest’, is flanked by a black edge and forms an orange or orange-yellow stripe on the male and a lemon-yellow one on the female.

Juveniles lack the crown stripe completely.

The only bird that you might confuse a goldcrest for is a firecrest, but these are much rarer, and only breed in South East England. 

The British Trust of Ornithology (BTO) works in partnership with over 40,000 volunteer birdwatchers to chart the fortunes of UK birds.

Among the surveys that we coordinate is our popular Garden BirdWatch, the largest year-round survey of garden birds in the world.

Each month we highlight a bird for you to look out for in your garden.

For more information about Garden BirdWatch or to speak to the Garden Ecology Team please email gbw@bto.org

 

To tell the difference between a goldcrest and firecrest watch this BTO ID video.

 

Read previous BTO Garden Bird of the Month blogs.

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