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TWO LITTLE KINGS
THE largest bird in the United States is the California vulture, or condor, which measures from tip to tip of its wings nine feet and a half. At the other end of the scale are the humming birds, one kind of which, at least, has wings that are less than an inch and a half in length. Next to these insect-like midgets come the birds which have been well named in Latin “Regulus,” and in English “kinglets” — that is to say, little kings. The fitness of the title comes first from their tiny size, — the chickadee is almost a giant in comparison, — and next from the fact that they wear patches of bright color (crowns) on their heads.
Two species of kinglets are found at one season or another in nearly all parts of the United States, and are known respectively as the golden-crown — or goldcrest — and the ruby-crown.
The golden-crown has on the top of its head an orange or yellow patch (sometimes one, some times the other) bordered with black; the ruby-crown wears a very bright red patch, though you may look at many specimens without finding it. Only part of the birds have it, — the adult males, perhaps, — and even those that have it do not always display it. The orange or yellow of the goldcrest, on the other hand, is worn by all the birds, and is never concealed. If you are a be ginner in bird study, uncertain of your species, look for the black stripes on the crown. If they are not there, and the bird is really a kinglet, it must be a ruby-crown. You may know it, also, — from the goldcrest, I mean, — by what looks like a light-colored ring round the eye. In fact, one of the ruby-crown’s most noticeable peculiarities is a certain bareheaded, large-eyed appearance.
Unless your home is near or beyond the northern boundary of the United States, you need not look for either kinglet in summer. The ruby-crown is to be seen during its migrations in spring and fall, the goldcrest in fall, winter, and spring.
At any time of the year they are well worth knowing. Nobody could look at them without admiration; so pretty, so tiny, and so exceedingly quick and graceful in their motions. Both species are of a prevailing greenish or olive shade, with noticeable light-colored wing-bars, and light, unstreaked, unspotted under parts.
The ruby-crown is famous as a singer. A genuine music-box, we may call him. In spring, especially, he is often bubbling over with melody; a rapid, wren-like tune, with sundry quirks and turns that are all his own; on the whole decidedly original, with plenty of what musical people call accent and a strongly marked rhythm or swing. Over and over he goes with it, as if he could never have enough; beginning with quick, separate, almost guttural notes, and wind ing up with a twittity, twittity, twittity, which, once heard, is not likely to be soon forgotten.
A very pleasing vocalist he surely is; and when his extreme smallness is taken into account he is fairly to be esteemed a musical prodigy. Every one who has written about the song, from Audubon down, has found it hard to say enough about it. Audubon goes so far as to say that it is as powerful as a canary’s, and much more varied and pleasing. That I must think an exaggeration; natural enough, no doubt, under the circumstances (romantic surroundings count for a good deal in all questions of this kind), but still a stretching of the truth. However, I give but my own opinion. Let my readers hear the bird, and judge for themselves. They will enjoy him, whether or no. Every such new acquaint ance that a man makes is a new source of life long happiness.
The enormous California vulture is said to be almost dumb, having “no vocal apparatus” and “emitting only a weak hissing sound.” What a contrast between him and the ruby-crown, — a mere speck of a bird, but with a musical nature and the voice of an artist. Precious stuff, they say, comes in small packages. Even the young est of us may have noticed that it is always the smaller birds that sing.
But if all the singers are small birds, it is not true that all small birds are singers. The golden-crowned kinglet, for example, is hardly to be classed under that head. The gifts of Providence are various, and are somewhat sparingly dealt out. One creature receives one gift, another creature another, — just as is true of men, women, and children. This boy “has an ear,” as the saying goes. He is naturally musical. Give him a chance, and let him not be too much in love with something else, and he will make a singer, or a player on instruments, or possibly a com poser. His brother has no ear; he can hardly tell Old Hundred. from Yankee Doodle. It is useless for him to “take lessons.” He can paint, perhaps, or invent a machine, or make money, or edit a paper, or teach school, or preach sermons, or practice medicine; but he will never win a name in the concert room.
The case of the golden-crown is hardly so hopeless as that, I am glad to believe; for if he is not much of a musician now, as he surely is not, he is not without some signs of an undeveloped musical capacity. The root of the matter seems to be in him. He tries to sing, at any rate, and not unlikely, as time goes on, — say in a million or two of years, — he may become as capable a performer as the ruby-crown is at pre sent. There is no telling what a creature may make of himself if his will is good, and he has astronomical time in which to work. The dullest of us might learn something with a thousand years of schooling.
What you will mostly hear from the goldcrest is no tune, but a hurried zee, zee, zee, repeated at intervals as he flits about the branches of a tree, or, less often, through the mazes of a piece of shrubbery. His activity is wonderful, and his motions are really as good as music. No dancing could be prettier to look at. All you need is eyes to see him. But you will have to “look sharp.” Now he is there for an instant, snatching a morsel or letting out a zee, zee, zee. Now he is yonder, resting upon the air, hovering against a tuft of pine needles, his wings all in a mist, they beat so swiftly. So through the tree he goes, and from one tree to another, till presently he is gone for good.
Once in a great while you may find him feed ing among the dry leaves on the ground. Then you can really watch him, and had better make the most of your opportunity. Or you may catch him exploring bushes or low savins, which is a chance almost as favorable. The great thing is to become familiar with his voice. With that help you will find him ten times as often as with out it. He is mostly a bird of the woods, and prefers evergreens, though he does not confine himself to them.
If you do not know him already, it will be a bright and memorable day — though it be the dead of winter — when you first see him and are able to call him by his regal name, Regulus satrapa. It is a great pity that so common and lovely a creature, one of the beauties of the world, should be unseen by so many good people. It is true, as we say so often about other things, that they do not know what they miss; but they miss a good deal, notwithstanding.