- 7.5–9.1 in
- 13–15 in
- 1.2–1.9 oz
- Smaller than an American Robin; larger than an Eastern Phoebe.
- Tyran tritri (French)
- Pitirre americano, Tirano viajero (Spanish)
- During the summer the Eastern Kingbird eats mostly flying insects and maintains a breeding territory that it defends vigorously against all other kingbirds. In the winter along the Amazon, however, it has a completely different lifestyle: it travels in flocks and eats fruit.
- Parent Eastern Kingbirds feed their young for about seven weeks. Because of this relatively long period of dependence, a pair generally raises only one brood of young per nesting season.
- It’s not called a kingbird for nothing. The Eastern Kingbird has a crown of yellow, orange, or red feathers on its head, but the crown is usually concealed. When it encounters a potential predator the kingbird may simultaneously raise its bright crown patch, stretch its beak wide open to reveal a red gape, and dive-bomb the intruder.
- The scientific name Tyrannus means “tyrant, despot, or king,” referring to the aggression kingbirds exhibit with each other and with other species. When defending their nests they will attack much larger predators like hawks, crows, and squirrels. They have been known to knock unsuspecting Blue Jays out of trees.
- One of the byproducts of being an insectivore is that both adults and nestlings regurgitate pellets of insect exoskeletons.
- Kingbirds sometimes catch small frogs, treating them the same way they deal with large insects: beating them against a perch and swallowing them whole. Eastern Kingbirds apparently rely completely on insects and fruit for moisture; they have never been seen drinking water.
- Kingbirds are “passerines,” a taxonomic group commonly referred to as perching birds or songbirds. But kingbirds and other flycatchers are in a different subgroup from true songbirds, and they don’t have nearly as complex voices. Rather than learning their calls they probably perform them innately. The young begin to give adult calls at about two weeks of age.
- The oldest Eastern Kingbird on record was 10 years, 1 month old.
The Eastern Kingbird usually breeds in fields with scattered shrubs and trees, in orchards, and along forest edges. It may also breed in desert riparian habitats, quaking aspen groves, parks, newly burned forest, beaver ponds, golf courses, and urban environments with tall trees and scattered open spaces. It is drawn to water, often nesting densely in trees that overhang rivers or lakes. The most widespread of our kingbird species, it breeds throughout North America, with the exception of northern Canada and the southwestern United States. During migration Eastern Kingbirds stop in many kinds of habitats. They overwinter in South America, primarily western Amazonia, where they forage in flocks in the forest canopy at the edges of rivers and lakes.
Eastern Kingbirds catch insects in midair during spring migration and on the breeding range, including bees, wasps, ants, beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, locusts, bugs, and flies. They perch in fields—up to a dozen feet off the ground—on shrubs, wires, fenceposts, or even clumps of dirt, waiting for insects to fly by. Eastern Kingbirds prefer large insects, which they take back to the perch, beat into submission, and swallow whole. They swallow small insects without bothering to land. Occasionally they catch insects from vegetation, the ground, or the surface of the water. They raise nestlings on both small and large insects. In the absence of a perch, kingbirds face the wind and hover, dipping to snatch insects from vegetation. They supplement their insect diet with fruit—including mulberries, serviceberries, cherries, blackberries, elderberries, and nightshade—particularly as the summer progresses. During fall migration they begin to eat a lot of fruit, and fruit makes up most of their diet on the wintering grounds.
- Clutch Size
- 2–5 eggs
- Number of Broods
- 1 broods
- Egg Length
- 0.8–1.1 in
- Egg Width
- 0.6–0.8 in
- Incubation Period
- 14–17 days
- Nestling Period
- 16–17 days
- Egg Description
- Pale and smooth with a striking ring of irregular reddish spots. Usually oval but variable in shape.
- Condition at Hatching
- Eyes closed and orange skin bare, except for some gray or white down.
The female builds the nest over the course of a week or two, mostly in the mornings. The male keeps an eye on the female while she builds the nest, possibly to warn her of predators, or possibly to keep her from mating with another male. The nest is up to 7 inches across and 6 inches deep, built very sturdily to withstand the buffeting weather that accompanies an exposed nest site. It has an exterior of small twigs, coarse roots, dry weed stems, strips of bark, and sometimes bits of trash such as cigarette butts, plastic, and twine. On the inside cup, only 2–3 inches across and an inch or two deep, is a softer lining of fine rootlets, willow catkins, cottonwood fluff, cattail down, and horsehair. Building the nest takes 1–2 weeks.
Eastern Kingbirds nest in open habitats in trees like hawthorn, apple, elm, mulberry, Osage-orange, and Norway spruce. The female probably selects the nest site, but the male may influence the decision: he sometimes positions himself in a potential nest site before the female chooses, and he may reuse a site in later years even if he has a new mate.
Eastern Kingbirds are creatures of the air, flying quickly and directly without gliding as they hawk insects, chase intruders, or deliver food to nests. Foraging birds sometimes head into the wind and flutter their wings to move slowly over grass tops, plucking food items. Mates use an exaggerated form of this distinctive flight as a way of greeting each other. Each pair maintains a loosely defined breeding territory and usually reunites the following year, using the same territory. DNA fingerprinting reveals that it must be common for kingbirds to mate outside the pair bond. Eastern Kingbirds may sometimes parasitize each other’s nests by leaving their own eggs to be raised by another pair. Males and sometimes females are very aggressive in territorial disputes, often resorting to aerial fights in which they lock feet together, pull out each other’s feathers, and sometimes fall to the ground. Eastern Kingbirds also attack large nest predators like crows and Blue Jays; such aggression has been shown to increase their breeding success.
Eastern Kingbirds are numerous and widespread. Their populations fluctuated during the twentieth century, and there have been recent indications of declines in eastern and southern states (possibly offset by increases in central and western states). Declines may be due to habitat loss as more cities have sprung up and small farms have returned to forest. Insecticides may also be partly to blame. Eastern Kingbirds often nest and forage near roads, and they are frequently hit by cars. They incorporate bits of trash into their nests, and in some cases this can be harmful, as with a female found caught in a loop of fishing line she had used in her nest. To date, Eastern Kingbirds do not seem to have declined as a result of habitat loss in their tropical wintering range.
Long-distance migrant. Eastern Kingbirds migrate by day in flocks of 10 to 60 birds, joining much larger flocks when crossing bodies of water. They may stop for several days at a time in favorable habitats along the way.
Kingbirds may visit open yards with nearby trees, scattered vegetation, and lots of insects. Berry bushes may help attract them, particularly in late summer and fall.
Find This Bird
In overgrown fields near forest edges, scan for a large, dark-backed flycatcher atop a shrub, fencepost, or wire. Wait for it to sally out to catch an insect, and look for an all-white belly and white-tipped tail. On country drives you can also often spot them as they sit on fence wires; it also helps to learn their distinctive call note, which sounds like an electric spark or zap. You can see Eastern Kingbirds starting in March or April until they head south again in late July or August.