By Ben Young
I’m often asked by my students to name my favorite birds. I can sell them on the kingfishers, hummingbirds, trogons, and owls without much persuasion, but when I mention the Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus), many are puzzled. How could such a common and seemingly ordinary bird be among my favorites? Consider the following four cool kingbird characteristics:
Easily identified and found.
Among the more conspicuous birds you may encounter in open habitats of the Flathead Valley is the Eastern Kingbird. A mid-summer drive to Smith Valley, Lower Valley, or other locales with similar open habitat will likely afford you the chance to see a handful of these birds. From a distance, look for a distinctly gray and white bird that is slightly smaller than a robin (length 8.5 in. vs. 10 in.), paying close attention to power lines, fences, or prominent perches on trees. The black head and slate gray back crisply contrast the white underparts, and the white terminal band at the tip of the tail is obvious.
Behavior and voice clues may also aid in identification. Eastern Kingbirds exhibit typical flycatcher foraging behavior on their breeding grounds. As sit-and-wait predators, the birds sally out from their perch to seize insects mid-air, often returning to the same perch. Its sharp, electric, and often buzzy trills, which lack the pure and melodic qualities of other songbirds, are attributed to its simple syrinx. Interestingly, Eastern Kingbirds are among a group of birds—the suboscines—that are thought to have the innate ability at birth to sing their song, requiring no learning period.
Let’s face it—some of the most challenging birds in North America to identify to species are tyrant flycatchers (Family Tyrannidae). Particularly if you are unfamiliar with calls, birds of the Empidonax andMyiarchus genera have the potential to drive you crazy with their apparently minute plumage variations. How nice it is, then, when after spending an hour in the field attempting to determine whether you were observing a non-vocalizing Willow or Alder Flycatcher, you can drive down the road and with absolute certainty identify an Eastern Kingbird on a wire at 55 miles per hour!
One gutsy bird.
Eastern Kingbirds are notorious for their aggression toward potential predators. Such attacks include mobbing (solo or tandem) perched or flying crows and hawks, which the Eastern Kingbird attacks from above and behind. In fact, the scientific name of the kingbird reflects its tyrannical behavior (Tyrannus tyrannus). My first recollections of Eastern Kingbirds include witnessing a Red-tailed Hawk getting mobbed by a pair of kingbirds in eastern Oregon. The kingbirds relentlessly chased and nipped at the hawk, and for several brief periods even rode on the back of the hawk, all the while pecking the intruder’s head. Runners and bikers beware!
The ultimate nest protector!
A significant threat to populations of songbird species throughout North America is the phenomenon of brood parasitism, during which brood-parasites (like cuckoos and cowbirds) lay eggs in the nests of other species, frequently resulting in the loss of eggs originating from the host. The Eastern Kingbird is one of a dozen species known to eject Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) eggs from its nest. Take that, cowbirds! Such nest defense is critical for the success of a species with low productivity (single brood of 3-4 eggs). It is thought that the 3-5 week period of post-fledging parental care may constrain pairs from multiple broods. While breeding pairs appear to show high fidelity to their breeding territory and partner (monogamous), extrapair copulations by males are not uncommon.
A bird like me.
Perhaps the greatest connection I have with Eastern Kingbirds is that I see a little of me in them. I figure I match up with them pretty well in the categories of territoriality and home defense against intruders. Site and partner fidelity, as well as small clutch size are spot on for me, too. My wife could even make a case for me qualifying as a suboscine (lousy, non-musical voice)—if only I had a syrinx. Even the sharply contrasting dark/light appearance fits my look, thanks to my farmer’s tan. As if that weren’t enough, we are even compatible with our migratory pathways, diets, and social interactions. After breeding in northern latitudes spanning nearly every state and Canadian province, save for the desert southwest, Eastern Kingbirds migrate thousands of miles to their wintering grounds in Amazonia. Over the last ten years, the earliest arrival in Montana has averaged the second week of May, while the latest departures wrap up in late September.
Their diurnal migration is somewhat unique among passerines, and their long-distance migration to the South American neotropics is exceeded by perhaps only the Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher among the tyrannids. The structural adaptation of having longer wings relative to other flycatchers allows for more efficient sustained flight during their lengthy migrations.
While on their wintering grounds, Eastern Kingbirds exhibit a seasonal shift in their diet. Mainly insectivorous on their breeding grounds, kingbirds are frugivores on their wintering grounds. Call me nuts, but is there anything better than fruit or meat?
Social interactions also vary throughout the year, as kingbirds all but abandon territorial defense while they overwinter. Flocking of Eastern Kingbirds is common during migration, as well as on their wintering grounds. Hundreds of Eastern Kingbirds may gather in coastline roosts during migration when inclement weather prevents overwater crossings. I like a bird that appreciates the company of others, but knows when it’s time to seek solitude and get away; that is resourceful in adjusting its diet to utilize what the environment provides; that lives an endless summer by trekking back and forth from the tropics. Such is the life when you’re king of the birds.
Murphy, Michael T. 1996. Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from The Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/253.
Sealy, S. G. and R. C. Bazin. 1995. Low frequency of observed cowbird parasitism on eastern kingbirds: host rejection, effective nest defense, or parasite avoidance? Behavioral Ecology (1995) 6(2): 140-145 doi:10.1093/beheco/6.2.140.
Sibley, D. A. 2008. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior. New York: Alfred A Knopf, pp. 384-398.