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Western Kingbird

Tyrannus verticalis ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: TYRANNIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Western Kingbird Photo

An eye-catching bird with ashy gray and lemon-yellow plumage, the Western Kingbird is a familiar summertime sight in open habitats across western North America. This large flycatcher sallies out to capture flying insects from conspicuous perches on trees or utility lines, flashing a black tail with white edges. Western Kingbirds are aggressive and will scold and chase intruders (including Red-tailed Hawks and American Kestrels) with a snapping bill and flared crimson feathers they normally keep hidden under their gray crowns.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
7.9–9.4 in
20–24 cm
Wingspan
14.6–15.7 in
37–40 cm
Weight
1.3–1.6 oz
37–46 g
Relative Size
Smaller than an American Robin; larger than a Black Phoebe.
Other Names
  • Tyran de l'Ouest (French)
  • Madrugador avispero (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The Western Kingbird’s breeding range has been spreading for the last century as an unplanned result of human activities. By planting trees and installing utility poles in open areas, people have provided hunting perches and nest sites, and by clearing forests they have created open habitats suitable for foraging.
  • Though known as birds of the West, Western Kingbirds tend to wander during fall migration. They show up along the East Coast, between Florida and Newfoundland, every autumn—but only rarely during the spring. In 1915 Western Kingbirds began spending winters in Florida, where they are now regular winter residents.
  • Western Kingbirds aggressively fend off predators and other kingbirds from their territories. The males warn off intruders with harsh buzzes or whirring wings. Both males and females snap their bills and raise their red crowns (normally hidden under gray feathers on their heads) when provoked. As the breeding season wears on, each pair defends a smaller and smaller territory. By mid-incubation time the territory includes the nest tree and little else.
  • The Western Kingbird was originally known as the Arkansas Kingbird, but scientists changed its name to acknowledge its wide range across western North America.
  • The oldest Western Kingbird on record was at least 6 years, 11 months old.

Habitat


Grassland

Western Kingbirds breed in open areas across western North America. Some of their preferred habitats include grasslands, desert shrub, savannah, pastures, cultivated fields, and urban land. Because they use trees and shrubs for nesting and open areas for foraging, Western Kingbirds often live near the edges of woodlands. They may be found near Fremont cottonwood, Arizona sycamore, oaks, junipers, creosote bush, mesquite, plains cottonwood, sagebrush, and ponderosa pine. They also perch and nest in human-made structures such as utility poles and fences. Western Kingbirds usually breed at elevations of less than 7,000 feet, in lowland areas or in mountain valleys. Most of them spend the winter in open woodlands, plantations, grasslands, and fields of southern Mexico and Central America.

Food


Insects

Like most other flycatchers, Western Kingbirds are mainly insectivores. They hunt by sight during the day, using acrobatic maneuvers to catch flying insects out of the air. A kingbird on the hunt may capture two or more insects before returning to its perch, where it shakes them or beats them against the perch to subdue them. Western Kingbirds also swoop down from perches to eat terrestrial prey, and glean insects from vegetation while hovering. Smaller-billed than most other North American kingbirds, they probably choose smaller prey. They eat bees and wasps, grasshoppers and crickets, beetles, moths and butterflies, caterpillars, flies, bugs, and spiders. On occasion they may eat fruits of elderberry, hawthorn, Texas mulberry, woodbine, and other shrubs.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–7 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
0.9–0.9 in
2.3–2.4 cm
Egg Width
0.7–0.7 in
1.7–1.8 cm
Incubation Period
12–19 days
Nestling Period
13–19 days
Egg Description
White, creamy, or pinkish with heavy blotches of brown, black, or lavender.
Condition at Hatching
Helpless and sparsely covered in white down, with eyes closed.
Nest Description

The female builds the nest by herself, weaving together a bulky, open cup of grass stems, rootlets, fine twigs, cottonwood bark, cotton, and other plant fibers. She lines it with an inner layer of softer material such as wool, hair, feathers, string, or cloth. The nest measures about 6 inches across and 4 inches deep on the outside, while the inner cup is about 3 inches across and 2 inches deep.

Nest Placement

Tree

Western Kingbirds build nests on crotches of trees or shrubs such as cottonwood, Texas mulberry, pecan, elm, willow, mesquite, creosote, yucca, sycamore, box elder, western juniper, big sagebrush, and green ash. They also use human-made structures such as utility poles, windmills, antennae, fenceposts, buildings, and metal girders. Both males and females visit potential nesting locations, but it’s unclear which one chooses the site.

Behavior


Flycatching

Males usually arrive at breeding areas before females and patrol the loosely defined borders of their territories. Once paired up, the male and female both help defend their territory, which shrinks as the breeding season progresses. By the middle of incubation the territory is quite small, consisting mainly of the nest tree and nest, but the pair defends it vigorously against other Western Kingbirds and other kingbird species. They even chase away larger predators, such as Red-tailed Hawks and American Kestrels, using a harsh buzzing call, snapping their bills, and raising their hidden red crown feathers. One of the biggest causes of nest failure is predation, despite the valiant efforts of the parents. Nest predators include snakes, squirrels, woodrats, owls, hawks, falcons, ravens, crows, magpies, and shrikes. Pairs mate monogamously, staying together to feed their young for up to three weeks after the young have fledged. They are mostly solitary throughout the rest of the year. Though Western Kingbirds tolerate neither closely related species nor predators in their territories, they may nest in the same tree as other birds such as Mourning Doves, Great-tailed and Common grackles, Bullock’s Orioles, Ash-throated Flycatchers, House Sparrows, American Robins, House Wrens, and Northern Flickers.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Western Kingbirds are common and have been increasing slightly across most of their breeding range since 1966, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 22 million with 91 percent spending part of the year in the U.S., 49 percent in Mexico, and 5 percent breeding in Canada. They rate a 9 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List. Western Kingbird populations fluctuate on a local scale, decreasing when high predation or bad weather destroy many nests but generally rebounding quickly after favorable years. Western Kingbirds seem to benefit from many human activities, and their range has grown since the late 1800s. They have spread eastward across the prairies of the Dakotas as people planted trees, and expanded across Texas as people cleared forests and installed utility poles and wires. Since Western Kingbirds nest near cultivated crops and often hunt for insects in farm fields, they may be harmed by pesticides.

Credits

Range Map Help

Western Kingbird Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Medium- to long-distance migrant. At the end of summer, Western Kingbirds begin their southward migration by flying to New Mexico, eastern Arizona, and northern Mexico, where they undergo a complete molt. Then they migrate the rest of the way to southern Mexico and Central America. Some may fly across the Gulf of Mexico, but most fly overland through interior Mexico and along the Pacific slope. (A few Western Kingbirds migrate to south Florida for the winter.)

Backyard Tips

If you live in a rural area with open habitat such as grassy fields, Western Kingbirds may perch on shade trees or fences in your yard. Although they are mostly insectivores, they may eat fruits of elderberry, hawthorn, Texas mulberry, woodbine, and other shrubs.

Find This Bird

During spring and summer, these large, aggressive flycatchers with gray-and-lemon plumage are conspicuous in open habitats across western North America. Their sharp kip notes and other squeaky calls can help lead you to them. In between flycatching flights, Western Kingbirds perch on trees, shrubs, fence posts, and power lines; this makes them fairly easy to spot along roadsides.