Birds – UK’s smallest and largest

Mali’s recent spotting of the UK’s smallest bird, the goldcrest, got me thinking about the UK’s smallest and largest birds.


The goldcrest, along with the firecrest, is the UK’s smallest bird with a wing span of roughly 14-15 cm. Part of the Sylviidae family, goldcrests sport the Latin name Regulus regulus. Found all year round and across the UK, the best place to see goldcrests are in pine forests. During winter the British resident birds are joined by immigrants from Scandinavia, Poland and Russia. They are dull grey-ish green with a pale belly. Females bear a black-bordered yellow stripe on their heads, while the males’ are orange. They also have thin beaks ideal for picking insects from between the pine needles. Rarely do the birds venture into gardens, only visiting in colder winters in search of bird tables for left over crumbs. Goldcrests have also been found in flocks of other birds such as tits.

The goldcrest was a species of conservation concerns for a number of years due to being adversely affected by cold winters in the early 1960s. However, their numbers have recovered substantially and continue to do so. While killed by birds of prey or parasites, due to the birds range and population they present little in the way of conservation concerns being classed as least concern on the IUCN Red list, and given green status by the RSPB.


Also from the Sylviidae family the firecrest is named Regulus ignicapillus. Whilst the same size the firecrest is brighter than the goldcrest with a green back, bronze collar, white belly and black and white eye-stripes. Like the goldcrest, females have a black-bordered yellow stripe on their head, while males have an orange stripe. They too have thin beaks suitable for insects, however are found in evergreen woodlands. They may also be seen in gardens, hedgerows and in scrub. While goldcrests are common in the UK, firecrests are more rare breeding mainly in the south-east of England and are easiest to spot during autumn and winter.

While less prevalent in the UK, the firecrest is not the subject of significant conservation concerns due to its large European population and expansion over the last hundred years. Milder winters have allowed the birds to winter further north expanding their breeding range. While also being classed as least concern on the IUCN Red List, the RSPB gave the firecrest an amber status.

White-tailed (sea) eagle At the other end of the spectrum, the UK’s largest bird is the white-tailed eagle with a wing span of 2.5m. Part of the Accipitridae family its Latin name is Haliaeetus albicilla. Adult birds have a brown body with a pale head and neck which can be almost white in older birds with white tail feathers. The white-tailed eagle can be found all year round sticking to the coastline or large bodies of water feeding on fish and birds. The eagle went extinct in the UK during the early 20th century due to illegal killing. Today the bird is very rare and has previously been confined to the west coast of Scotland. However, efforts have been made through a reintroduction programme taking place in east Scotland. While the white-tailed eagle can be found across Europe and Asia, it has been given a red status by the RSPB with only 37-44 pairs in the UK.

So there you have it, the UK’s smallest; the goldcrest and the firecrest, and the UK’s largest; the white-tailed eagle. Keep your eye out for them and if you want any more information visit:

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Abi Gardner

I'm a Ecosystem Services (MSc) student at The University of Edinburgh, with a background in Environmental Geography. I'm passionate about ecology, biogeography, environmental management, sustainability and climate change.

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