Eastern Kingbird: Migration Monday

Today’s long-distance migrant has attitude to spare: the Eastern Kingbird. It’s Latin name, Tyrannus tyrannus, means “tyrant of tyrants”. “Kingbird” is an apt description; these birds are very aggresive and fearless when it comes to defending their “realm”. They even sport crowns of a sort: a stripe of red (sometimes orange or yellow) on top of their heads that is rarely exposed; except for during breeding and acts of intimidation.

Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus)

Description:

Eastern Kingbirds stand at 8″ tall. They have black upperparts, white underparts, and a thick black bill. They have a square-tipped tail, large heads, and straight posture. The Kingbird’s black tail has a white tip. There is a narrow stripe of red (sometime yellow or orange) feathers on their crown which are usually concealed. They spend a lot of time perched on tree branches, poles, or telephone wires. Eastern Kingbirds are extremely territorial. They do not hesitate to attack any bird flying over their territories. Eastern Kingbirds have been seen attacking birds much larger than themselves such as Red-tailed Hawks, American Crows, and Great Blue Herons. They will raise their red “crowns” when spotting a potential predator, widely open its bill to reveal a red gape, and dive-bomb the intruder.

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The Mighty Eastern Kingbird (Image by Rick and Nora Bowers/VIREO via audubon.org)

Range:

Long-distant migrant. Eastern Kingbirds winter in South America and migrate through Central America. They spend the summers throughout most of North America, except for the West Coast. Many songbirds migrate by night, but Eastern Kingbirds mainly migrate by day.

Habitat:

Winters: tropical forests near rivers. Summer: fields, grasslands, orchards, farmland, wetlands, and wood edges.

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Kingbird in flight (Image by Howard Powell via the Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Food:

Mainly insects. Kingbirds will look for prey on high perches and grab insects mid-air. They eat a variety of insects, such as bees, beetles, flies, grasshoppers, and wasps to name a few. They prefer larger insects though, which they will usually take back to their perch and beat into submission before swallowing. They will sometimes hover by fluttering while hunting. Eastern Kingbirds also eat wild fruit and berries.

Breeding/Nesting:

To attract a mate, male Kingbirds display their acrobatic prowess. They will do backwards somersaults, zig-zags, and up and down fights to impress females. The red patch of crown feathersĀ  will become visible during courtship. The nest is primarily constructed by the female in a deciduous tree or shrub. The male will watch over his mate while she constructs the nest. Scientists are not sure why the male watches but to there are two theories: to protect the female from predators while nest-building or to prevent her from mating with other males.

The female will have one brood a year with a clutch size between 2-5 eggs. Incubation takes about 16-18 days and is done entirely by the female. Both parents will feed the nestlings, who will fledge after 16-18 days. The chicks will usually be fed by their parents for about 7 weeks, which is why Kingbirds only have one brood a year.

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Eastern Kingbird nest (Image by Anc516 via wikimedia commons)

Sounds:

Songs: a complex dawn and evening song that consists of high buzzy repeated zeers. Calls: a sharp dzeet.

Fun Facts:

  • Although extremely territorial in the summers, Eastern Kingbirds will surprisingly form flocks to find food while spending the winters in the Amazon.
  • Eastern Kingbirds may also catch frogs and give them the same treatment as large insects: beating them on perches and swallowing them whole. You won’t normally see a Kingbird drinking water; they get all the moisture they need from their diet of berries and insects.
  • It takes between 1 and 2 weeks for females to construct their nests.
  • Eastern Kingbirds will usually reunite with their former summer mates in the same territory. However, sometimes they will mate outside the pair bond. Eastern Kingbirds have also been known to parisitize each other’s nests. This means that they will sometimes lay eggs in other Kingbird’s nests, so that the unsuspecting pair will raise those chicks.
  • According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Eastern Kingbirds have been known to knock unsuspecting Blue Jays right out of the trees they are perched in!

 

 

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Author: BirdNation

I am an avid birder, teacher, and nature lover. I primarily birdwatch throughout New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania.

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