Although not brightly colored, the Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) is a conspicuous and flamboyant bird. This large flycatcher, about the size of a Catbird, is found commonly in our area in summer in fields, wetlands, and even urban parks.
Except for a thin, bright red crown stripe, usually only visible when the bird is expressing aggression (which occurs frequently), the Kingbird’s plumage is a rather somber combination of black, white, and gray: white underparts from the throat down to the uppertail coverts, a black cap, gray back, blackish wings, and a blackish tail except for a white band at the tail tip.
The typical call is a high, buzzy “ktzee,” often repeated in a series. There is also an infrequently heard “dawn song,” given usually just before dawn, which is a long series of sounds mostly similar in quality to the call note, with a good many sharp “clicking” sounds thrown in for good measure.
But this species more than makes up for its relatively drab colors and unremarkable vocalizations by force of personality. Its Latin name is well chosen: Kingbirds are best known for their bellicose defense of their breeding territories against other kingbirds; any potential nest predator, including hawks, owls, crows, ravens, jays; and many mammals; and, quite gratuitously, other bird species that are no threat to the nest at all. An intruder is usually greeted by being dive-bombed and sometimes struck repeatedly, usually on the back, by one or both of the Kingbird pair.
The nest they so diligently defend is built in a tree (sometimes a dead one), often in a very exposed site, befitting such a seemingly fearless bird. Foraging for insects is typically done right out in the open, in typical flycatcher style: sallying out into the air to snap up a flying insect in its bill, only to fly back to the perch to eat the insect, then wait till the next one comes by. As one might expect, Kingbirds are not afraid of catching stinging insects; bees and wasps are frequent prey, and an old colloquial name for this species is “bee-martin”. Some species of berries are also part of their diet.
The Eastern Kingbird spends its winters in South America, from Venezuela south to northern Argentina. Surprisingly, during migration and winter, Kingbirds are quite social and tolerant of the presence of other Kingbirds, and they are often found in flocks at these times feeding on fruit.
Embrace the insects in your garden and yard. Insecticides not only kill off the bugs that Kingbirds eat, but can also sicken them as well.