When you are trying to get a handle on bird identifications, it’s useful to apply categories. For instance, size is helpful: big as a crow? As a robin? As a sparrow? Habitat is another important clue: did you see it in a forest? A grassland? A town park? One category perhaps less obvious but which I encourage students of birds to learn more about is what I’d call residential status. Is a bird a permanent resident? A summer breeder only? A winter resident only? Or does it just migrate through the Barrington area in spring and fall?
One that falls into the latter category, and which is a welcome harbinger of spring migration, is the ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula). This diminutive species, even smaller than a sparrow, appears in northern Illinois usually in early April. Because of its size and overall drab coloration, this kinglet – as well as its cousin, the golden-crowned kinglet – is easy to miss. But the attentive bird watcher will take note of a little dynamo flitting through trees and shrubs in early spring, seldom pausing, always flitting from one branch to another in search of insects. The ruby-crowned kinglet is almost constantly in motion.
It gets its name from the patch of crimson feathers atop its head. Most often those feathers – the “crown” – are obscured by the drab olive feathers that cover most of its body. They emerge when the bird is agitated or excited. A couple weeks ago, a house-quarantined friend from the Ravenswood neighborhood in Chicago sent me some photos of a ruby-crown right outside her window, its brilliant crown fully exposed. She sent me several more soon afterwards and in each photo, the crown was easily visible. It happened during one of the several cold snaps of recent weeks and she guessed the little bird wanted to come indoors to the houseplant on the other side of the window.
Ruby-crowned Kinglet – Photo by Amy Rule
The kinglet may be tiny but its song is another matter. It sings a long series of loud, melodic, fast-paced notes that race up and down and go on for several seconds. One cannot help but marvel at the achievement of such an avian cantata from such a tiny bundle of feathers. The song always makes me smile as I scan nearby branches for a glimpse of the singer.
Another surprising feature of the ruby-crowned kinglet is its seeming friendliness, its fearlessness in the company of humans close by. Often on bird walks in the Barrington area, I can point out a kinglet, with its prominent white wing bar and white eye ring, only several feet away from us. Rarely does it fly away at our approach.
Ruby-crowned kinglets, like their golden-crowned cousins, tell us of migrants to come. They winter mostly in the southern part of our country and so have less far to travel to reach our latitude. But they will only pass through, as they are headed to more northerly regions to breed. That makes every ruby-crowned kinglet an ephemeral sighting, not to be repeated until the bird passes through the Barrington area again on its way south. Look for the species outside your window, in nearby trees, in parks, forest preserves – just about anywhere – and see if you don’t become a fan of its pertness, pluck, and energy.
About Wendy Paulson
Wendy Paulson has lived in Barrington Hills since 1975, and has led bird walks in the area for many years. She re-established the Nature Lady program in the Barrington 220 school district and St. Anne’s in the late 70s, under the auspices of The Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Barrington. Wendy developed the education program for Citizens for Conservation, initiated and edited its newsletter, and has been an active volunteer with CFC for over 30 years.
During interludes in New York City and Washington, DC, Wendy taught classes about birds in the public schools and is helping to develop a similar program in Chicago public schools with Openlands. She is chairman of The Bobolink Foundation, serves on the board or advisory committee of multiple conservation and bird-related organizations, both domestic and international, and is former chairman of IL and NY chapters of The Nature Conservancy.
Wendy and her husband Hank have two grown children and are avid hikers, cyclists, and kayakers.
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