Goldcrest or firecrest: What's the difference?
Know your goldcrests from your firecrests? Joanna Peaker from The Scottish Wildlife Trust takes a look at some of the differences…
Goldcrest and firecrest are two of the smallest species of bird in the world. They can be difficult to tell apart, partly because they’re so tiny, but also because they’re very closely related species.
They both have, as their names suggest, a brightly coloured crest on their heads, and they both weigh barely more than a 20 pence piece. But there are some key differences worth remembering when you’re trying to tell the difference between the two.
How to tell the difference between a goldcrest and a firecrest
Goldcrests and firecrests are both members of the genus Regulus, hence the whole host of similarities in their appearance. But there are some very helpful differences in their plumage.
Goldcrests have a bright yellow crest right in the middle of their head, with a dark black border. This is true for both the males and females, but the males have a thin line of even brighter orange feathers in the centre of the crest. They’ll puff these out during territorial displays.
The goldcrest’s Latin name Regulus regulus (meaning ‘little king’) is fittingly inspired by their golden crests (or crowns!). But at a glance, especially when they’re quickly flitting about between branches, you may only notice their almost olive-green colour and pale fronts.
Firecrests share this pale olive-green plumage – the most noticeable differences are on its face and its crest. The Latin name for the firecrest, Regulus ignicapilla, refers to its more ‘fiery’ crown (ignicapilla meaning ‘fire-capped’).
Their yellow crest can often look more orange in the males, even when the crest is relaxed, and has a thicker black border. They have a dramatic, sooty black eye-stripe, and a white stripe above their eye, which makes their crests look even more eye-catching.
There’s no shame in using just a pinch of anthropomorphising when it helps you with bird ID! Goldcrests almost have a permanent ‘worried’ look because of their wide eyes and the dark feathers around their beak suggesting a ‘frown’. Firecrests, on the other hand, look angry: their black eye-stripe and stronger crest just make them look a bit ‘cross’.
Goldcrest vs firecrest: how rare are they?
And now onto one of the most important differences between the two species: how likely you are to see them.
Wherever you are in the UK, you’re more likely to see a goldcrest than a firecrest. It’s difficult to work out the population sizes of these birds, given how tiny and elusive they are, but there are an estimated 76,000 goldcrest breeding territories in the country, versus the estimated 2000 of the firecrest. There are just a lot more goldcrests compared to their more fiery cousins.
Do goldcrests and firecrests live in the same areas?
Both species typically live in woodlands, but while goldcrests are found widely across the UK and Ireland, the firecrest’s UK breeding population is confined to the very south of the country.
If you’re wondering which species you’re seeing, consider where you are in the country. Goldcrest is almost always going to be the more likely choice, but if you’re walking through mixed woodland in south-east England, you’re in with a better chance of spotting a firecrest.
When is the best time to see them?
Both birds can be seen year-round, but our resident populations are bolstered by migrating populations from Norway, Sweden, and Finland in the winter. While firecrests are usually just seen in the south-east of England, and across into Wales, you could be lucky enough to spot a migrating firecrest during their autumn and spring movements along the coasts or passing through on islands.
Goldcrest vs firecrest: migration
It’s amazing that with goldcrests only reaching around 6g in adulthood, and firecrests 7g, these minute birds are capable of migration at all. In fact, this unbelievable truth is the basis of a very sweet myth.
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People understandably thought goldcrests were far too small to migrate across the North Sea, and so must have hitched a ride on other, bigger birds. This fetched them the title ‘woodcock pilot’, as people believed the goldcrests rode on the backs of woodcocks, which just so happened to migrate across the North Sea to the UK at around the same time.
But this is absolutely just a myth. Goldcrests – and firecrests – may be incredibly tiny, but they are capable of undertaking these perilous journeys (hundreds of miles long), sometimes even multiple times in their short lives.
Migrating goldcrests from Scandinavia join our large resident population all across the UK, but migrating firecrests only overwinter in more southern areas of the country.
Being a very tiny bird and relying on migration for survival is a dangerous lifestyle, so mortality is often quite high in these species, both of which only have an average lifespan of two years. Severe winters are their main threat. There’s evidence that numbers of goldcrests and firecrests are actually on the increase, which could be due to climate change leading to milder winters in the UK.
Joanna Peaker is the Visitor Centre Site Manager at Scottish Wildlife Trust's Montrose Basin Wildlife Reserve
Main image: Getty Images
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