Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Birds of the Mid-Atlantic #19: Eastern Kingbird

While some birds are known for their beautiful plumage or songs, others are known for their behavioral traits. One such bird is the eastern kingbird, whose prime behavioral characteristic is its aggressiveness. During the breeding season when pairs are establishing territories, this aggression will be directed against other kingbirds. Two males will engage in a flurry of posturing and calling (a call described as the sound of electrical wires being crossed). At other times it will be directed against other, larger, bird species and animals. I once observed a kingbird chase a crow across a river. The kingbird dove and pecked at the crow's back the entire way across. Hawks and other large birds perceived as threats have received the same treatment.

Eastern Kingbird / Photo by Laura Erickson

In comparison to other flycatchers, eastern kingbirds are larger, bulkier, have larger bills, and have more contrast between their black topsides and white undersides. The most prominent characteristic setting apart eastern kingbirds is the white band at the tip of the tail. This feature is easily noted even at a distance or in poor lighting. Kingbirds will sometimes flex this band in their territorial displays.

Kingbirds prefer open fields and grasslands. There they can sit out on a wire or branch and make sallies to catch insects. Yet these common birds can be found in less bucolic settings, even in urban areas. Kingbirds regularly spend the summer on the National Mall near the U.S. Capitol. One summer a pair nested in a tree on my downtown street, hardly ideal kingbird habitat!

When an eastern kingbird is sitting out in the open, it looks every part its name - kingbird in English and Tyrannus tyrannus in scientific terminology. The plumage is crisp and bold like a business suit while the bird's posture conveys that it is the boss of its territory. Attacks on other birds exhibit the bullying insinuated in its name. It is a common complaint of birders that some bird names mischaracterize the bird, but in the case of the kingbird, the name is apt.