Britain’s smallest native bird, the Goldcrest (Regulus regulus), can typically be found breeding in coniferous forests, although occasionally may breed in deciduous woodlands and in other landscapes with patches of dense tree cover. Keep reading to learn more about typical goldcrest nesting habits and where these tiny forest-dwelling birds raise their young.
Goldcrests are prolific nesters, raising up to 20 chicks in a single breeding season. Sturdy, compact nests are constructed in the upper branches of conifers, using moss, lichen and spiders’ webs.
Goldcrest pairs usually raise two broods in a season, with a new nest constructed each time. Broods may overlap, with the female often beginning her second clutch before the young from the previous brood have hatched.
Due to their tiny size, goldcrests have a particularly low survival rate during cold winters, and this productive approach to breeding helps to ensure the continuation of the species.
To learn more about how goldcrests build their nests and raise their young, please read on for our complete guide to goldcrest nesting.
Goldcrest sat on the nest - extremely well camouflaged
Goldcrests breed in forests with tall conifers, building their nests towards the ends of upper branches of fir, pine and spruce trees. Several pairs may nest close together in the same tree.
In the UK, goldcrests are year-round residents and are joined each winter by migrant birds arriving from Scandinavia to spend winters in milder conditions. Resident birds are known to ‘wander’ within the UK, and no data is available for breeding ground fidelity for a second year.
The species has a typical lifespan of around 8 months, so a second breeding season is not always guaranteed. Old nests are not known to be reused.
Goldcrests breed in dense coniferous forest with tall trees, particularly spruce and fir, and if these conditions are present in a garden, then perhaps goldcrest pairs may identify it as a suitable breeding spot.
Tall conifers are the most common place for Goldcrests to build their nests
Goldcrests will craft their own nests in preference to using any kind of nest box. Purpose-built ‘nest pockets’ have been designed to mimic their natural nest style, although little is known about how successful these are at attracting breeding goldcrests.
Conifers are by far the most common trees for goldcrests to choose as a nest site, with spruce and fir being popular choices. Occasionally laurel will also be used, and on rarer occasions deciduous trees covered with ivy creepers.
Nests of goldcrests are usually found in conifer branches between 4 m and 14 m (13 ft to 46 ft) above the ground.
Adult Goldcrest feeding a recently fledged chick
Goldcrests build deep, almost spherical cup-shaped nests, tightly constructed around the outermost twigs of conifer branches or tucked into twines of ivy.
The outer coating of the small, compact nest is made from twigs and lichens, which are tightly bound together with spiders’ webs, holding a layer of moss in place.
Goldcrests’ nests are small and compact, with the internal cup measuring around 9 cm (3.5 in).
A pair of young and very hungry Goldcrest fledglings, waiting to be fed
Nesting activity is observed to begin from the end of March onwards, with first nests of the season complete and ready for laying to begin in April. Often even before the initial brood has fledged, a second clutch will already be underway, with the female building a new nest while the male continues to feed the young from the first brood.
Incubation for goldcrests takes between 14 and 17 days, with 15 days being the average time before hatching. Young goldcrests remain in the nest for between 17 and 22 days before fledging, where they are fed by both parents. Once fledglings have left the nest, parental feeding continues for another 12 to 18 days.
Goldcrests lay their first clutch of eggs in April. A second brood usually follows almost immediately, with the female preparing a second nest before the first hatchlings have fledged. Breeding is usually complete by the end of June.
Goldcrests do not use nests outside of the breeding season, and in winter, will roost high up in conifers, tightly huddled with several other birds in order to preserve warmth and energy.
Their tiny, fragile size puts them at great risk of perishing as temperatures drop, with up to 80 percent of goldcrests dying during the coldest winters.
Because they're tiny and fragile, many Goldcrests often don't survive harsh winters
Compact spherical nests are built using vertical twigs for support at the ends of upper branches of conifers, in a kind of ‘hammock’ position. Alternatively, goldcrests may choose a spot tucked up close to the trunk to build their nest.
A three-layer nest is constructed, using twigs and lichens bound together with spiders’ webs as a tough outer coating. Inside, moss is packed tightly to form a deep cup, which is then lined with several hundred tiny feathers.
Nest construction can take anything from a few days to up to three weeks.
Moss and lichen are used to form the outer layer of a goldcrest’s nest, and held in place by spiders’ webs. An inner layer of fine twigs and dried grasses are then lined with up to 2,500 tiny feathers.
Goldcrest pairs work together to craft their first nest of the breeding season, with the female doing the majority of the construction. The second nest is then built by the female shortly after her first brood has hatched, while the young are fed by the male.
Close up portrait of a Goldcrest
Goldcrest eggs are tiny, measuring 1.4 cm by 1.1 cm (0.6 in by 0.4 in). They are a dull shade of white, and are marked with brown speckles.
Goldcrests lay between 6 and 13 eggs in a single clutch and it’s not unusual for all eggs to hatch successfully. The second brood of the season is generally smaller than the first.
Female goldcrests incubate eggs alone, only leaving the nest for brief periods each day to feed.
Goldcrests can be extremely hard to spot, as they're relatively fast, and tiny
Young goldcrests fledge between 17 and 22 days after hatching, after which they continue to be fed away from the nest by both parents – or mainly by the male if the female is already incubating a second clutch – for up to 18 days.
In a typical season, goldcrests will raise two broods, producing up to 20 offspring in a year. Due to the high mortality rate of the species in cold winters, laying this many eggs helps maximise the chances of the survival of the species.
Goldcrest fledgling on the ground
Female goldcrests are observed to be especially hesitant to leave their nests, and even when a nest has been moved by human disturbance, they will continue to do all they can to protect their eggs. If a nest does fail, goldcrests will abandon the site and may split from their mate to seek a new breeding partner.
Goldcrest nests are typically found at heights of more than 4 m (14 ft). No records of ground nesting exist.
Outside of the breeding season, goldcrests do not use nests overnight. Instead, they roost communally in the uppermost branches of conifers, huddling together for warmth and protection.
Preferred environments for nesting goldcrests are forests with tall conifers, meaning it’s unlikely – although not impossible – for the species to choose to nest in a back garden unless this habitat is available. Goldcrests may visit gardens to forage underneath feeders for tiny insects or shreds of bread, cheese, suet or fat particles.
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