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Little Larksong King

January 20, 2011
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Ruby-crowned Kinglet, known by latin-philes* as Regulus calendula, is a common component of the mixed flocks of perching birds one can find in North Carolina this time of year.  They are the second smallest perching bird in North America, bested only by their co-gener, the Golden-crowned Kinglet, and as with so many of our smallest birds, their attitude seems inversely proportional to their size.  In true mythic royal fashion – kings are never so bold in reality – they’ll offer themselves as the vanguard of any dicky bird mob you can pish up around here, and don’t hesitate to investigate within feet of the even the poorest free-form Screech Owl interpretation, chucking madly and flashing that eponymous crown.

*as opposed to burrito and neotropic loving latinophiles, of which I also count myself a member

The name Regulus calendula offers both an exceptionally apt and a more mysterious description of the Ruby-let. The first part of Regulus is derived from the Latin Rex, referring to royalty and the root of “regal” and “regalia” and any word derived therein.  Appropriate, then, for a little gray-green bird with a flash of color on top of its head; a coronet that’s rarely seen, though whether that’s because it occupies such limited real estate on the bird itself or because Ruby-crowned Kinglets rarely sit still long enough to note any field marks beyond their manic wing-flicking is unclear.  Though when I manage to get a photo of them, as I did last week at Jordan Lake’s Seaforth Recreation Area, I nearly always spot a sliver of scarlet that I can never remember seeing in the field.

The suffix -ulus is a diminutive and thus, when applied to the royal Rex, means “little King”, appropriate for this bird’s daintiness perhaps, but was used historically by Latin speakers as a put-down.  This is most noted in the case of the Roman emperor Romulus Augustus, whose disastrous reign lasted all of a year before he was deposed by German warlords and who was known, sarcastically, as Augustulus, or “Little Augustus”.  Perhaps if he had half the disposition of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet history would not remember him so unkindly.

Calendula is a bit more cryptic, though, as in addition to the specific name for Ruby-crowned Kinglet it’s also the genus for the  Pot Marigolds, Calendula sp, (no relation to the popular garden flower, incidentally), several species of  sunflowers that grow wild across central Asia.  That Calendula is a reference to the Greek kalendae, the root of our word calender, apparently referring to the regularity with which they bloom every month.  It’s hard to see how that definition applies to a North American species like Ruby-crowned Kinglet, however.

According to Jobling’s A Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names, the Kinglet calendula is a reference to the Calandra Lark (Melanocorypha calandra), found across the Mediterranean and into western Asia.  Jobling suggests that the song of the Ruby-crowned Kinglet, one of my favorites with its slow build up and explosion into a rapid jumbled cascade of twitters and warbles, is evocative of this Lark, considered to have one of the most beautiful songs in Europe and mentioned in Tuscan proverbs and Spanish ballads*.

*”Canta come una calandra”, he or she sings like a lark (Giusti 1853) and “Romance del prisionero”, where its song is the only way the prisoner knows when day breaks (Applebaum 2004), respectively.  Thanks Wikipedia!

I can sort of see this.  You can hear the Calandra Lark’s song at xeno-canto and it is not unlike the Ruby-crowned Kinglet, but it doesn’t really explains how calandra becomes calendula, especially when calendula already has an established etymology.  But so much of this stuff is lost to history, and taxonomists had no real obligation to be consistent or transparent beyond the binomial arrangement.

If anyone has any additional information, I’d love to hear it.  Till then, I’ll just enjoy the Ruby-crowned Kinglets as they are; the self-decreed kings of winter in North Carolina.

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6 Comments
  1. January 20, 2011 7:03 am

    How cool that you got his little red crown too! Great captures!

  2. January 20, 2011 7:07 am

    Nice post. I love learning more about how names, both common and scientific, were given.

  3. January 20, 2011 7:39 am

    I enjoyed that post, both pictures and test!

  4. David permalink
    January 20, 2011 8:25 am

    See this is the kind of stuff I wish they put in those monstrous field guides that you leave on your bookshelf at home. Those bird guides are great for double-checking what you saw in the field but are impractical to carry around with you. I`d like to see a field guide with all this kind of information, along with the history like when subspecies were discovered, a true what`s what of birds in N. America. It would probably be a 2000 page, multi-volume job but I`d pay for it. As long as it isn`t just the same stuff I can get in the Peterson field guide that I carry around in the field.

    That`s my round a-bout way of saying, great post!

    • January 21, 2011 9:22 am

      Thanks for sharing both words and photos. This small bird is indeed one of the kings of winter here in central NC as you say… Winter birds are fun.

  5. January 23, 2011 6:19 pm

    These little guys can be real show-offs as they flutter and chase each other through the tree tops. I love the photos and the information, and the title is perfect. Great post!

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