On my daily walk on the quiet and dusty township road I live next to, there’s never an outing that I don’t observe wildlife. As well, my walks are always a time to not only unwind and think good thoughts, it’s also a time to take note of plant phenology.
A species of bird that I don’t often encounter anymore, especially right where I live, has in recent years become a common sight (though only a pair, never more than that). Indeed, I was happy to once again observe one of Minnesota’s largest species of flycatcher, the eastern kingbird.
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 of N.D., I was delighted to make acquaintance once again with eastern kingbirds.
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 flycatchers of this avian family, 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. The colored stripe is visible, and the brightest, on displaying male birds’ heads. More on this later.
As noted earlier, the aggressive nature of eastern kingbirds is a significant trait. I’ve watched these fearless birds pursue and relentlessly attack blackbirds, crows and species of raptors, herons and gulls that enter their breeding and nesting territories. Calling wildly as they carry out their aerial assaults, I’ve never once observed a kingbird lose an aerial attack to an avian intruder.
Both the eastern kingbird’s common and scientific names are appropriate for not only eastern kingbirds, but for the other kingbird species of the clan, too. The name “kingbird” is so given for the bird’s crown. Though scarcely visible, when the eastern kingbird raises its crown feathers ever so slightly, beautiful yellow, orange, or red feathers on its head are revealed. And when encountering a threat, as in a predator or trespassing bird or other animal, eastern kingbirds raise their crowns to expose fiery crown-patches and open wide their mouths to showcase their red gapes as well. Imagine being pursued or dive-bombed by an angry kingbird with its flash of fire and fury!
The species’ Latin scientific names and family name also reveals something descriptive: “Tyrannus tyrannus” and “Tyrannidae,” respectively. In fact, kingbirds and many other flycatcher species throughout North and South America, including phoebes, are collectively referred to as “tyrant” flycatchers. This name, tyrant and variances thereof, which are so named for these birds’ aggressive behavior toward other birds and animals, are especially displayed whenever trespassers dare venture into a tyrant flycatchers’ nesting territory. Moreover, the family’s most tyrannical member of them all? Kingbirds, to be sure.
Often observed in an open area perched on a conspicuous limb or on top of a fence post, the eastern kingbird sits patiently defending its territory while also watching for flying insects to capture in midair. Never failing to fascinate and delight us, the insectivorous eastern kingbird is truly the king of tyrants as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.