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North Words: Ruby-Throated Kinglet: The little bird with the big, bold and beautiful song

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He's a tiny fellow, not much more than four inches long, not particularly colorful, yet sings a song that's sure to delight.

The Sibley Guide to Birds describes his song as "lively, varied, and loud." For certain, emphasis should be placed on "loud," followed by "beautiful."

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I'll never forget the first time I heard the song of this diminutive little scrapper.

At the time, I was working as a naturalist during the summer of 1995 at historic Itasca State Park and had just finished giving a campfire program along the shores of Lake Itasca.

I had been aware of the birdsong during the entire program and I remember thinking, "What kind of bird is that?!"

Afterwards, I began a search of the area for what I was sure had to have been a large bird.

After all, a bird with a voice box like that must be big! But all I got for my efforts was a sore neck from looking up into the crowns of giant conifers.

My feathered buddy never did show himself. Still, even if he had, I probably wouldn't have believed it was really him that had produced the melody anyway.

Nevertheless, I wasn't about to forget his song. When I returned home that evening I popped imy cassette recordings of bird songs and calls nto a tape player and began to listen.

And when I finally located the very tune I had

just heard, it astonished me that it came from such a tiny source.

A ruby-crowned kinglet?! Impossible, I thought. But of course it was the case -- my little mystery birdsong and its rightful owner were identified.

Ruby-crowned kinglets happen to be among our tiniest birds, at not much more than four

inches long from beak to tail and scarcely a quarter-ounce in weight.

Interestingly, for such pint-size proportions, female ruby-crowns lay one of the largest clutches of eggs. Clutch sizes average eight eggs. And as many as twelve eggs in a nest have been observed, too.

Actually, two species of kinglets inhabit northern Minnesota woodlands.

The golden-crowned kinglet, even smaller than the ruby-crowned, seems to prefer coniferous forests year-round, whereas the ruby-crowned kinglet tends to be found in mixed woods.

Even so, both birds are frequently observed in mixed coniferous and deciduous woodlands.

As both species of kinglets' names imply, identification is aided by the color of their crowns.

But don't expect to see the red top of the ruby-crown very easily. In fact, it's almost invisible unless the male raises its head-feathers to expose the scarlet patch.

He does this when he's agitated, as when he defends his territory from other male kinglets or other species of birds and animals, and while he sings.

Otherwise, the plumage coloration of ruby-crowned kinglets is rather drab.

They resemble flycatchers and vireos in color, size, and behavior.

Both species of kinglets are insectivores. In the case of ruby-crowns, ants and other Hymenoptera are regular summertime prey. Other insects, spiders, insect eggs, and some seeds

and fruit are also consumed.

It's very common to observe these kinglets hovering and gleaning insects from the ends of tree branches and between conifer needles. The small birds flit about like tiny, feathered darts as they hunt for food.

And about that incredible song again. Exceedingly difficult to describe in words, justice

simply cannot be served in any other manner except that... to hear the song is to know the bird.

And though both genders of both ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets sing, it is the male ruby-crown that belts out the most improbably loud and melodious song.

The male ruby-crowed kinglet likes to sing his lively three-part song from a high perch.

It begins with a few high-pitched tsee notes, followed by a half-dozen or so lower-pitched churr notes, and culminates with a beautifully rich and rolling string of warbled phrases.

His song is sung repeatedly, though not as frequently as the red-eyed vireo's.

So, if you hear a ruby-crown's song this spring, stop and remain still.

Chances are good that you'll hear it again, and maybe even see him singing high in the treetops.

But think small when you search!

Springtime will be here in no time.

Meteorological winter is half over, and it won't be long until migratory birds will be making their way northward -- including the ruby-crowned kinglet and so many others, too.

Writer and poet Henry Van Dyke must be a man moved by the tiny avian kinglet. So moved by the ruby-crowned kinglet, he penned a poem devoted entirely to the species.

He wrote, in part:

"Far to northward lies a land

Where the trees together stand

Closely as the blades of wheat

When the summer is complete.

Rolling like an ocean wide

Over vale and mountainside

Balsam, hemlock, spruce and pine

All those mighty trees are mine.

There's a river flowing free

All its waves belong to me.

There's a lake so clear and bright

Stars shine out of it all night;

Rowan-berries round it spread

Like a belt of coral red.

Never royal garden planned

Fair as my Canadian land!

There I build my summer nest,

There I reign and there I rest,

While from dawn to dark I sing,

Happy kingdom! Lucky king!"

Indeed, such a tribute for such a noble king --the ruby-crowned kinglet is coming soon, to a forest nearby, for us to listen to and possibly observe as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

(Klemek is the DNR Area Wildlife Supervisor in Detroit Lakes. You can contact him at bklemek@yahoo.com)

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