We usually don’t know who gave a bird species its common name and sometimes may scratch our heads wondering how and why someone ended up choosing a particular name. But birders faithfully learn to identify birds with those names, even when they may seem illogical. For example, many people would have chosen to call red-bellied woodpeckers red-headed woodpeckers since the reddish belly feathers are much less obvious than the red on the back of their heads.
Sometimes we can guess at why a bird got a certain name, however. The species with some form of “king” in their names were apparently felt to have something regal in their bearing or behavior. These birds don’t look similar though.
Some are quite small, like the ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula). This tiny bird, which weighs only 5-10 g (0.2-0.4 oz), is a bit dull in color except for the ruby crown that the males occasionally display. They are very active and very cute and having them leave the forest and woody areas to visit your bird feeders is a real treat.
The golden-crowned kinglet (Regulus satrapa) is even smaller, weighing on average 4-7.8 g (0.14-0.28 oz). The males and females both have crowns, although the males can have an orange patch in the middle of their crowns.
The belted kingfisher is larger still (Megaceryle alcyon) weighing 113-178 g (4-6.3 oz). The females are more brightly colored than the males, showing a reddish band across their breasts (both male and female juveniles have the reddish bands but adult males lose theirs).
Some birds don’t have regal names in English but do so in other languages. For example, in Dutch and German, wrens are called kinglets; in North Carolina, we talk about Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus).
And then we have the large raptor (weighing in at 0.9–2.1 kg (2.0–4.6 lb) whose regal background is expressed in its scientific name, Pandion haliaetus. Pandion was the name of the Greek king of Athens who was grandfather to Theseus, who was transformed into an eagle. Haliaetus comes from the Greek word for sea eagle. We call this regal eagle by the simpler name osprey.
So these kingly birds are all quite different, ranging from the tiny kinglets to the robust osprey. What they do have in common is their loveliness, displayed in diverse size, color and plumage, and our appreciation for their beauty.