A year in the life of a Firecrest

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By Marcus Ward, 15 January 2016

As part of an on-going project we have been colour-ringing Firecrests in the New Forest, so that individual birds can be studied over time to better understand their habits and movements. To do this we apply small lightweight coloured rings onto the legs of the birds (under a BTO license); these rings are proven to have no significant impact on the lifestyle of the bird, and provide an opportunity to identify and study individuals in the field.

In order to highlight the richness of data that can be gained from colour ringing, let’s run through the recent life story of Firecrest RG (RG = red over green rings on the right leg). RG was first caught and colour-ringed close to a busy central New Forest car park on 04 Jan 2015, and was aged and sexed as a first-winter male, i.e. hatched in spring 2014. He weighed in at just 5.3 grams – a good weight for this species in mid-winter, but highlighting the diminutive size of this species (alongside the Goldcrest, this is the smallest British bird).


Firecrest RG in his home range, foraging in Holly; all of our colour-ringed Firecrests carry a pink and metal ring on the left leg, with a unique colour combination on the right leg


By regularly observing our colour-ringed Firecrests, we not only collect valuable scientific data but also start to appreciate the personalities of individual birds. I have seen RG several times a month over the past year, watched him survive the winter, establish a territory, build a nest, raise a family and then see them off. I have never seen him more than ten or so metres away from the spot where I ringed him last winter; he has survived this whole time in a small group of holly trees, apparently getting everything he needs there to survive and prosper.

RG has a lively personality, normally tolerating other crests in his territory but occasionally getting the hump; just a couple of weeks ago I watched him noisily see off a group of three Goldcrests that had the audacity to cross his patch in search of food! Although RG’s territory is adjacent to one of the busiest car parks in the New Forest (he often has tourists, dog walkers, picnickers and noisy families within his territory), nobody ever seems to notice him and he seems to pay little notice of them. Only one other observer has reported his presence, despite many passing close by en-route to quieter parts of the forest in search of wildlife!


A male Firecrest in the hand, identified as a male due to the orange crown stripe (in females the stripe is yellow)


RG was still present on his patch during my last visit (23 Jan 2016), which was a relief after he went missing on my previous two visits. I suspect he was probably there all along, as it is surprisingly easy to miss such a tiny bird in dense patches of holly, especially when he only calls occasionally.

The oldest ringed Firecrest in the UK reached three years and two months, however most are thought to die in their first year and any that survive beyond two years are doing well. I am hoping that RG survives to defend his territory, find a mate, and raise another brood again this year, and the optimistic side of me is hoping he might challenge that longevity record. But I think I am going to have to think of a proper name for him – RG just doesn’t have a ring to it!


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