How Small?

What is Britain’s smallest bird? Well many folk reckon it’s the wren, whilst in fact it’s officially the goldcrest, or maybe the goldcrest’s near cousin the firecrest. I guess it really depends upon how you describe smallest. Let’s draw an analogy with Rugby Union Lock forwards, at 6ft 5in and 17 stone you might be considered relatively small when a big boy might be 6ft 10in and 19.5 stone, see Irish International Devin Toner. Wrens and goldcrest, thankfully, don’t reach these dizzy heights and their true dimensions can be determined by checking out the links to the BTO BirdFacts. So size can be determined by wing span (cm), wren (15); goldcrest (14), making the goldcrest just the winner, but the biggest difference is weight (in grams) and what a difference, wren (10); goldcrest (6gm). It seems that the goldcrest is smallest by virtue of weight and for folk like me who don’t understand the units and don’t yet do metric that is a goldcrest weighs about as much as a 5p piece and you get four adult birds to the ounce. Furthermore a clutch of 12 young represents as much as one and half times the adult female’s weight. The beautiful goldcrest nest, usually in a conifer, is a tiny cuplet of moss and spiders web overtopped by a layer on insulating feathers. Goldcrest chicks are fed by both adults and they frequently have a segoldcrestcond brood. The number of chicks and a second brood could well be important because like wrens these birds suffer greatly in bad winters and as many as eight out of ten birds might perish if things get really bad. Their prolific breeding mechanism helps them to relatively quickly regain numbers.


You can see goldcrest at How Stean and what a delight they are. On my last visit a few weeks ago I saw a pair, the best place to look being in the conifers.  Birders will tell you they are usually heard before they are seen and thereby lies a dilemma, at least for me. Their call is so high pitched that I can’t hear it, even when stood under a tree where fellow birders claim a goldcrest resides. Anyway listen out for a high pitched call and search the canopy for the caller. It is said that the inability to hear the goldcrest is one of the first signs of old age. I have been ageing for the last 20 years!


The goldcrest is so called because the male sports a Mohican-like headdress of gold, or rather it does when in courtship mode when the crest stands to attention, no doubt to attract the female’s attention. At other times the bird’s headdress is less distinctive so look for a small greenish-grey bird with a pale belly and a black and yellow stripe on its head with, on the males, a gold centre. Goldcrest are insectivorous and for that they have a thin beak. The goldcrest, like most birds, has other names including, in the past, the golden-crowned wren and golden-crested wren. The term wren was apparently disliked by some naturalists and eventually goldcrest won the day. Folk names include golden cutty and, more interestingly perhaps, herring spink, tot o’er seas and woodcock pilot. Like redwing and fieldfare, and at the same time despite its small size, goldcrest cross the North Sea from Scandinavia to spend their winter with us. It seems that in the past they would alight for a well-earned rest on herring boats, hence the two nautical allusions above. Woodcock pilot is a Yorkshire name I have never heard, but apparently goldcrest were said to precede the returning migratory winter woodcock by a few days.


After they have completed their marathon cross sea journey these birds are obviously tired and hungry – who wouldn’t be? Well if you are lucky enough to encounter them at this time they apparently can be found anywhere on the shoreline and seem to be fearless of humans. There are even reports of exhausted birds landing on humans and instead of quickly flying away, searching through the humans’ clothing for a morsel of food.  If you want to see a goldcrest then the best starting place is in a conifer tree and why not search at How Stean if you are there? It’s possible, although not proven, at least to my knowledge, that goldcrest breed at How Stean.  In winter you might find goldcrest amongst flocks of foraging tits, so look carefully and the good news is goldcrest are not considered to be under any conservation concerns at present.


Nigel Heptinstall (Outdoors2015)



Birds Britannica – Cocker and Mabey.

The Oxford Book of Bird Names – WB Lockwood