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Don't mess with the eastern kingbird

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I saw a couple of old friends recently. A boisterous and bold pair, I've always marveled at not only their airborne antics, but their aggressive nature as well. Outwardly they appear peaceful enough birds, but woe is the bird or other animal that gets too close to their breeding territories.

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Aptly called kingbirds, or eastern kingbird to be exact, this species of bird belongs to the large group of "tyrant" flycatchers, or family Tyrannidae. True tyrants they are, or at least capable of behaving as such, most members of the family are aggressive, especially the larger species such as eastern kingbirds.

While there are many other birds that have fly-catching abilities, like gnatcatchers, kinglets, warblers, bluebirds and others, few birds can match the fly-catching skills of tyrant flycatchers. Other common tyrannids in our region include eastern wood-peewee, eastern phoebe, least flycatcher and the great crested flycatcher.

Less commonly observed, not to mention difficult to distinguish from one another, including between least flycatchers, are the willow and alder flycatchers. Often is the case -- as it is with many other lookalike species of birds -- voice helps cement positive identification. The least flycatcher, for example, is famous for its loud and distinctive "CHEbek" call.

I first became acquainted with eastern kingbirds long ago as a boy canoeing the Crow Wing River in Wadena County. Years later, while conducting wildlife research on wetlands of the Great Plains, I was delighted to make acquaintance once again with eastern kingbirds. Regarding the latter period of time, I also observed abundant western kingbirds.

Western kingbirds, a yellow-bellied bird that is perhaps more eye-catching than the eastern, resembles the great crested flycatcher, minus the head-crest. Nevertheless, great crested flycatchers are birds of hardwood forests, whereas all kingbirds prefer more open landscapes.

Just a short time ago I was once more canoeing the Crow Wing. On numerous occasions as I paddled the watercraft around a bend, startled pairs of eastern kingbirds would alight on overhanging limbs above the river while vocalizing their discontent. These agitated birds would never swoop at me, yet they made it clear that I had entered their territory, which they were always prepared to defend.

At other times I caught them unaware. I'd sit inside the canoe and watch with interest as a kingbird, intent on capturing a flying insect, would launch itself from a favorite perch and give chase. The hapless insects, though expert flyers in their own right, were always overmatched by the kingbirds' sheer will and command of wing. Culminating each series of seemingly hard earned victories, audible snaps, like the loud click of one's fingers, could be heard as the kingbird's beak snapped shut onto its meal.

And it is with this amazing fly-catching attribute -- the snapping beak -- that not only helps such birds capture their prey with such efficiency, but also to differentiate the tyrant flycatchers from the many other insect-eating passerines. Phoebes, pewees, Empidonax flycatchers, and of course, kingbirds, possess special ligaments that connect the upper and lower mandibles. These ligaments are like tiny springs that snap the open mouth closed when a flying insect is captured.

Eastern kingbirds are conspicuously plumaged and sizable songbirds. Though the bird is the smallest of the seven species of kingbirds that occur in North America, eastern kingbirds are about the size of a Baltimore oriole. Dark gray above, white below, a black head and white-tipped tail feathers, it's hard to mistake an eastern kingbird with any other bird. And as with most tyrant flycatchers, kingbirds, including eastern kingbirds, are sexually monomorphic in plumage characteristics; in other words, the sexes look alike. Yet to the astute observer, male and female eastern kingbirds tend to exhibit certain differences in behavior and posture.

Male birds frequently perch in a more upright posture than females normally do. Additionally, male eastern kingbirds often erect their head feathers in a slight crest, whereas females' heads remain less crested, if at all. Also, but barely noticeable on the heads of all species of kingbirds, is a red or orange crown-stripe that is hidden by the darker head feathers. Evidently the colored stripe is visible, and the brightest, on displaying male birds' heads.

As I noted earlier, the aggressive nature of eastern kingbirds is a noteworthy trait. I've observed many times these fearless birds pursue and relentlessly attack blackbirds, crows and hawks, eagles and ospreys and herons and gulls that enter their breeding territories. Calling wildly as they carry out their aerial assaults, no kingbird I've ever seen has lost.

Indeed, flycatchers, and particularly eastern kingbirds, are admirable birds. Kingbird parents are devoted to their young, caring for them longer than most other songbirds do. The energetic eastern kingbird, expert flyer and catcher of flying insects, is a remarkable bird for us to see as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

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Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com

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