Little Larksong King
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.