Eastern Kingbird

Tyrannus tyrannus

Eastern_Kingbird_3-9-16.jpg

Photo of an eastern kingbird perched on a branch.
Eastern kingbirds have a tidy, black-and-white plumage and a distinctive, fluttery flight.
Jim Rathert
Family

Tyrannidae (flycatchers) in the order Passeriformes

Description

Adults have black on the head and dark gray on the back. The underparts are white, with a white terminal band on the tail. The voice is a burst of chattering, high, sharp kips, kitters, and tzeees. Like other flycatchers, kingbirds typically flit gracefully from an exposed perch to snap up flying insects and then immediately return to the same perch. One reason for the name “kingbird” is the reddish-orange crown on its head — but this bright patch is very hard to glimpse in the field.

Similar species: This is the only flycatcher in our area with distinctive black, dark, slate gray, and white coloration. Most of the others have warmer colors, or are quite smaller, or both.

Size

Length: 8½ inches (tip of bill to tip of tail).

Eastern_Kingbird_perched_3-9-16.jpg

Photo of an eastern kingbird perched on a branch.
Eastern Kingbird
Eastern kingbirds flit gracefully from a exposed perch to catch flying insects, then fly right back to the same perch.

Eastern_Kingbird_on_fencepost_3-9-16.jpg

Photo of an eastern kingbird perched on a fence post.
Eastern Kingbird
Eastern kingbirds have black on the head and dark gray on the back. The underparts and tip of the tail are white.

Eastern_Kingbird_on_nest_3-9-16.jpg

Photo of an eastern kingbird sitting on nest.
Eastern Kingbird On Nest
Eastern kingbirds build large, thick-walled, sturdy cup nests out of twigs, grass, and other materials, including human trash.

Eastern_Kingbird_on_barbed_wire_3-9-16.jpg

Photo of an eastern kingbird perched on barbed wire.
Eastern Kingbird
The eastern kingbird is a common summer resident in open grassy areas with scattered trees, often near water.
Habitat and conservation

Common summer resident in open grassland or agricultural areas with scattered trees, plus woodlands, savannas, forest edges, and city parks, often near water. It darts from its perch to capture insects or chase away avian intruders. The name “kingbird” comes, in part, from its fearless physical attacks of other birds that venture into its territory — kingbirds have been known to chase away crows and even hawks, screaming, sometimes landing on them in flight, and pecking fiercely on their backs.

Foods

Visual, aerial hunters, kingbirds sally from exposed perches on trees, phone wires, or fences to snatch relatively large flying insects, such as wasps, beetles, grasshoppers, true bugs, and robber flies. Bristly feathers by the bill funnel flying insects to the mouth. The kingbird returns to its perch, bangs the insect on the branch, then swallows it. A small amount of berries and other fruit are eaten in summer, but in winter (in South America), kingbirds switch to a diet of mostly fruit.

Distribution in Missouri

Statewide.

Status

Common summer resident. Populations have decreased about 40 percent since the 1960s, with a combination of possible causes, including: habitat loss here in North America (where they breed), as urban areas expand and agricultural areas revert to forest; insecticides, which can reduce available prey or be toxic to the kingbirds eating the poisoned prey; and collisions with cars (roads are open areas that are often attractive to kingbirds for hunting and nesting).

Life cycle

Eastern kingbirds arrive in Missouri the second half of April. Large, thick-walled, sturdy cup nests are built of twigs, grass, and other materials, including human trash. Nests are built in open areas with scattered trees and shrubs, often near water. A clutch comprises 2–5 eggs, which are incubated 14–17 days. The young fledge 16–17 days after hatching. There is 1 brood a year. This species migrates in large flocks in mid-August to early September to spend winters in South America.

Human connections

This bird’s spirited territorial defense; tidy, professional-looking plumage, and distinctive, fluttery flight have long captured the attention and admiration of people. An antique name for this bird was “bee-martin,” from the erroneous assumption that it preyed to an injurious extent on honeybees.

Ecosystem connections

Kingbirds, as flycatchers, serve as a natural check on insect populations, helping control the numbers of a variety of insects. In their Amazonian wintering grounds, eastern kingbirds travel in flocks, eating fruits and perhaps spreading the seeds of tropical açaí or camu camu berries!