On 22 April 2005, I captured a banded Ruby-crowned Kinglet. I was amazed to see that it was not a bird that I had previously banded. The rule of thumb is that fewer than 1% of small songbirds are ever encountered away from the place they are banded. And kinglets are one of the smallest songbirds, weighing in at around 6 or 7 grams, or the same weight as an American nickel and a dime. They are so tiny, in fact, that properly-sized bands have only been made since 1993. Prior to that time, the smallest band size had to be modified to fit them, and many banders released kinglets without banding them at all.
In The Canadian Atlas of Bird Banding, I looked up the number of encounters of Ruby-crowned Kinglets — an encounter being a subsequent observation of a banded bird, dead or alive. Between 1921 and 1995, with over 48,000 banded in Canada between 1955-1995 alone, the number of Ruby-crowned Kinglets encountered was only ten. The Atlas noted this is one of the lowest encounter rates of any species. While the U.S. has no similar publication, they do provide simple tallies of numbers banded and encountered. Although 127 Ruby-crowned Kinglets sounded more substantial, the encounter rate was actually only 0.03%. What a special event this was!
The only other foreign encounters I’ve had here at RRBO were an American Goldfinch and a Sharp-shinned Hawk. Both were originally banded within 25 miles of here, and were caught by me within four months of the banding date. Figuring this kinglet, too, was from nearby, I contacted other regional banders, but nobody could claim this diminutive traveler.
On 2 May, I received acknowledgment from the U.S. Bird Banding Lab that this kinglet was originally banded as a hatching-year bird (born the same year it was banded) on 10 Oct 2003 outside of Toronto, about 216 miles ENE of Dearborn.
Specifically, the location was Tommy Thompson Park (a.k.a. Leslie Street Spit), man-made peninsula constructed from dredge and fill which juts out 3 miles into Lake Ontario from the Toronto shoreline. The kinglet was banded by the Tommy Thompson Park Bird Research Station (TTPBRS), a partnership between Toronto and Region Conservation and the Toronto Bird Observatory . The station began operation in 2003, and although it is offshore from the city rather than within it as we are, it has become the only other urban-based, full-time bird observatory in North America besides RRBO.
Kinglets, especially Ruby-crowned, are a bread-and-butter bird for TTPBRS, making up 30% of all birds banded over fall 2003-2004. This is not surprising: other lower Great Lakes banding sites located along the shores of Lakes Erie and Ontario also band hundreds or thousands of kinglets: Long Point Bird Observatory, Prince Edward Point Bird Observatory, Braddock Bay Bird Observatory, and Haldimand Bird Observatory, for example. At our inland site, we don’t even SEE as many kinglets as these stations band in a typical fall season! This seems to provide evidence that these little mites prefer to travel along shorelines rather than over water during their journeys between their nesting areas in northern spruce-fir forests and their wintering areas in the southern U.S., Mexico, and Central America.
The capture of this one bird provides only a single data point, and while it is a notably rare event, in itself it doesn’t deliver a big scientific wallop. But this encounter is valuable in other ways. Ruby-crowned Kinglet number 2310-75634 has provided a special connection between two bird research stations studying urban bird ecology — an underappreciated focus that often struggles for acknowledgment and recognition. And it provides an opportunity for us all to marvel at the resilience of such a small creature, and how much we still don’t know about this common bird that flits among us, just passing by.