Goldcrest: the bird profiles

Hannah
Hannah
Hannah
Hannah

I am particularly interested in garden wildlife which is why I did my Master's degree with a focus on "animal ecology". I am convinced that beneficial insects and wildlife are a sustainable and effective alternative to many of the products we use on our plants. I am also a passionate birdwatcher and rarely go for a walk without my binoculars.

Favourite fruit: kiwi, apple and redcurrant
Favourite vegetables: tomatoes and green beans

Want to find out more about the smallest songbird in Europe? Here’s everything you should know about the goldcrest.

A goldcrest perches on a branch
The goldcrest is small but striking

The goldcrest (Regulus regulus) is the smallest songbird in Europe. Round, and weighing less than a £1 coin, this tiny songbird is incredibly cute. The only other songbird quite as small is the common firecrest (Regulus ignicapilla), a close relative of the goldcrest and on average only a few millimetres larger. Read on to find out how to distinguish between the goldcrest and firecrest, recognise the goldcrest’s song and spot the difference between males and females.

Goldcrest: key facts

SizeAbout 9cm
WeightAbout 4-7g
Breeding seasonMarch-July
LifespanApproximately 4 years
HabitatConiferous forests, parks with conifers
Food preferencesVery small insects
ThreatsHarsh winters, food decline, trapping (some countries), natural predators (cats, birds of prey)

How to recognise the goldcrest

Recognising a goldcrest is easy; despite their size, the birds are quite ostentatious. Think olive-green backs; green, black and white striped wings; and grey-white chests and abdomens. A goldcrest’s most conspicuous feature, however, is its shining yellow-orange crown, which is framed black: you’ll be hard-pressed to miss it!

A goldcrest on a branch
Goldcrests are easy to recognise [Photo: Florian Teodor/ Shutterstock.com]

How to tell the difference between a goldcrest and firecrest

Having spotted what you think is a goldcrest, one question remains: is it really a goldcrest, or is it a firecrest? There is one sure-fire way to distinguish a goldcrest and firecrest. Namely, firecrests have clear, white stripes crossing their eyes. Goldcrests have no such stripe.

A firecrest
The firecrest has a conspicuous, white stripe over its eye [Photo: Martin Pelanek/ Shutterstock.com]

How to recognise a young goldcrest

You can recognise a young goldcrest by its small, portly shape, olive-green plumage, and black and white patterned wings. However, the chicks do not yet display their parent’s brilliant gold crown, and their beaks, tinged orange, are lighter than an adult’s.

A goldcrest chick perches on a branch
The young birds do not yet display the goldcrest’s typical headdress [Photo: Victor Tyakht/ Shutterstock.com]

How to recognise a goldcrest egg

Goldcrests lay up to 11 white eggs per clutch. Yellow-brown speckles cover the egg, clustering at the fat end, and darkening the bottom. Unsurprisingly, the eggs are about 1.4 centimetres in size and weigh less than a gram.

How to tell the difference between male and female goldcrests

Male and female goldcrests look very similar. One difference, however, is the colour of their crowns. Females have a shining lemon-yellow stripe, whilst the male’s is striking orange and fades to yellow only at the forehead.

A female goldcrest
Female goldcrests have a yellow crown [Photo: Martin Pelanek/ Shutterstock.com]

Note: it can be difficult to tell if a goldcrest is male or female if the lighting is not good. To really notice the difference, it is best if the two sexes are standing next to each other.

A male goldcrest
The males are crowned with orange [Photo: Massimiliano Paolino/ Shutterstock.com]

What is the perfect habitat for goldcrests?

Goldcrests love conifers. In the UK, this means spruces, and you will find goldcrests in coniferous and mixed forests. In continental Europe, however, they can be found in mountainous Swiss pine forests. That is not to say you won’t find the goldcrest in urban parks or large gardens – as long as there are enough large, bushy spruces.

Where do goldcrests build their nests?

Goldcrests build their nests in and amongst the branches of conifers – mainly spruces. The nests, made of moss and lichen, are tightly interwoven with the tree’s hanging branches using spider and caterpillar cocoons. The inside, meanwhile, is lined with animal hair.

A goldcrest nest hanging from coniferous branches
Goldcrests build a hanging nest [Photo: Tilzit/ Shutterstock.com]

When is breeding season for goldcrests?

Goldcrests begin breeding in late March or early April. Mothers incubate their eggs alone, only stopping to quickly search for food. After 15 to 16 days, the young birds hatch and are supported predominantly by the male, while the female starts a new clutch, even before her first brood has left the nest.

Where do goldcrests spend winter?

Goldcrests remain in the UK year-round. Despite their size, which is not at all designed for heat retention, the songbirds manage to survive the colder months. It is only the northern European populations, facing particularly harsh winters, that are known to leave their breeding grounds and migrate south. Scandinavian goldcrests, for example, move to Hamburg. During winter in the UK, however, goldcrests seek warmth and food in thick spruce branches.

A goldcrest hides from the snow under a conifer
Goldcrests remain in the UK throughout winter [Photo: bearacreative/ Shutterstock.com]

What does a goldcrest’s song sound like?

It would be a little odd if the goldcrest had a deep, throaty voice. And lo and behold the smallest songbird in Europe does not! In fact, goldcrests could have one of the highest-pitched voices of all UK birds. Their song consists of quick, repeated chirps that are so high-pitched and clear that elderly people may struggle to hear it.

Help the goldcrest!

Goldcrests do feel at home in gardens, as long as there are enough conifers and food around. Here, we’ll let you know what these tiny songbirds demand and how you can support them.

What do goldcrests eat?

Goldcrests only eat small arthropods, such as insects and spiders, and only hunt the smallest of these. Springtails, for example, a tiny, wingless insect, only a few millimetres in length, is a staple of the goldcrest’s diet. The birds look for food on the branches of conifers and can eat their own body weight every day. In fact, young goldcrests and new mothers need twice their body weight in food every day!

A goldcrest parent feeds their perched chick
Young goldcrests need a lot of food [Photo: Paul Maguire/ Shutterstock.com]

Which birdhouses are suitable for goldcrests?

Goldcrests are demanding nesters. They breed exclusively in the hanging branches of conifers, so a classic birdhouse won’t do. Reserve that for your blue tits, tree sparrows or redstarts. To support goldcrests, who need dense, bushy branches to build a nest, avoid overly thinning your spruces or conifers.

How can I support goldcrest even more?

Goldcrests are heavily dependent on a healthy insect population; losses can be devastating. By designing an insect-friendly garden, you can support goldcrests and numerous other animals in your garden. Growing a meadow of flowers, for example, is ideal.

And don’t forget: all garden birds, including goldcrests, benefit from a water supply: be it a small pond or bird bath.

Incidentally, many other bird species can be supported with a lively and varied garden, such as the house sparrow and white wagtail.

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