The goldcrest

David Chapman / 07 November 2011

The goldcrest is the smallest breeding bird in the British Isles

I find it astonishing that a bird which weighs only 6 grams, that is about half the weight of a wren and about the same weight as a ten pence coin, can survive the cold winter nights of the UK. The fact is that many goldcrests actually come to Britain especially to avoid the colder winters of Eastern Europe and Scandinavia.

The large influx of goldcrests during October and November can be witnessed in our gardens as our evergreen trees and shrubs suddenly play host to these tiny waifs. This influx occurs at the same time as many other birds, including thrushes and woodcocks, arrive along the east coast of Britain. It was once thought so unlikely that a goldcrest could fly unaided across the North Sea that they were called 'woodcock pilots' because of a belief that they hitched a ride in the plumage of the woodcocks.

During summer it is estimated that we have about 1.5 million goldcrests in the UK. These birds usually make their nests using moss, lichen, feathers and spider's webs in the branches of a coniferous tree. In the nest the female goldcrest can lay up to 12 eggs in a clutch which amounts to one and a half times her own body weight.

In good years the population of goldcrests in Britain can increase dramatically and this had been happening in the late 1990's and early 21st century but the last few harsh winters have had a negative impact. Goldcrests eat spiders and insects mostly in the upper branches of conifer trees but also amongst bushes in gardens. They sometimes join flocks of tits roving through woodland in winter but unlike them goldcrests have not learned to come to bird feeders in our gardens. Their small size and insectivorous diet make them extremely vulnerable to the cold.

Goldcrests can be difficult to spot because they usually stay hidden in evergreen trees but listen carefully and it is often possible to pick up their high-pitched 'zi-zi-zi' calls. Even then it can be frustrating to hear them all around but fail to see one but catch a glimpse of a goldcrest and the trouble will be worthwhile. On top of the goldcrest's head is a beautiful crown strip, yellow in the female and orange in the male, bordered by black lines.

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