If you thought ruby-throated hummingbirds were tough, then you have never watched an eastern kingbird in action. They do not call it “king” for nothing. Just let another larger bird pass too close and the kingbird will launch into an attack. Its territory has been likened to a cone that may extend up to 100 feet in the air. No species is safe. Whether hawk, crow, or raven, it is dispatched with much panache. Just to make a point, the kingbird may even perch on the bird’s back and pull some feathers out. Usually the offending party is just passing overhead. It doesn’t matter. Tyrannus has even been recorded to give chase to small aircraft.
All this comes from a bird that only measures about 8 inches long. Males and females look alike to us. Their heads, backs, wings, and tails are black while their chins and underparts are white. A white band at the end of the tail is distinctive. They also have some red feathers on their crowns (What would you expect from a king?), but these are seldom visible. Like other flycatchers, they have on either side of their bills what are known as rictal bristles. These look like whiskers.
In spite of being called eastern kingbird, in the United States and in Canada the range of this species extends almost from coast to coast. Eastern kingbirds show up here in the spring after making a long journey from South America. Alexander Skutch made careful observations of the species’ migration through Central America. The birds travel by day in small flocks with the males usually ahead of the females by a few days. Most arrive on their northern breeding grounds in May when there are plenty of insects. Most kingbirds return to the same territory each year. (This behavior is referred to as philopatry.) The birds also generally remain monogamous, although it is not out of the question for either partner to occasionally get a little on the side. Pairs from previous years are re-established quickly.
Kingbird territories average about a half acre square. (Not including their airspace.) For a bird that is so hot to drive larger intruders off, they are surprisingly laid back about where the boundaries are drawn. Eastern kingbirds have probably benefited from man’s interference. They prefer the open areas produced by farming and forest clearing. There, they will take up position on a fence or small shrub and wait to see what flies by. If it is an insect, after a quick pursuit, it usually ends up being dinner. If nothing tasty happens along, kingbirds will also take insects from nearby vegetation.
The nest at first seems to be a rather flimsy affair, however, it is stronger than it looks. The female builds it under the watchful eye of the male. She may make a number of attempts before finally coming up with one she is satisfied with.
Generally, kingbird nests are either low (around 6 feet) or high. The higher nests tend to be placed out on a horizontal limb. The female may build upon a previous nest or use material from one. She may recycle an abandoned American robin’s nest. Kingbirds have even taken up residence in the old nests of Baltimore orioles, however, this was a rare exception.
Three eggs are generally laid. There may on occasion be as many as five. These are creamy white or pinkish with brown spots. (At one time their interesting patterns made them prized by egg collectors.) Hatching takes place in 14 to 18 days. Incubation is done by the female alone. Both parents feed the new arrivals. The menu is made up mostly of large insects, however, fruit may also be provided on occasion. Eastern kingbirds evidently eat a lot of bees. For this reason, they were once referred to as bee martins and enthusiastically shot by beekeepers. One study claimed that kingbirds removed the stingers from bees before feeding them to their young.
The young birds fledge in around 16 days. Families stick together until mid-August and early September when the birds migrate south again. Arriving in Columbia, Ecuador, Chile, and Argentina by mid-October, eastern kingbirds form feeding flocks of between ten and twenty birds. It is then that they also undergo their annual molt. They are one of the only passerines that nest in North America, but do not molt in summer.
The record lifespan in captivity for an eastern kingbird is seven years, however, we know from banding them that this is much higher than the norm of two to three years. A group of kingbirds is collectively referred to as
a coronation, a court, or (my favorite), a tyranny of kingbirds.