Eastern Kingbird Life History

Habitat

Habitat GrasslandsThe 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.Back to top

Food

Food InsectsEastern 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.Back to top

Nesting

Nest Placement

Nest TreeEastern 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.

Nest Description

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.

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size:2-5 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
Egg Length:0.8-1.1 in (2.1-2.7 cm)
Egg Width:0.6-0.8 in (1.6-2 cm)
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.
Back to top

Behavior

Behavior FlycatchingEastern 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.Back to top

Conservation

Conservation Low ConcernEastern Kingbird is numerous and widespread but populations decreased by 47% between 1966 and 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 27 million, with 84% breeding in the U.S. and 16% in Canada. The species rates an 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. Eastern Kingbird is not on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List. 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.Back to top

Backyard Tips

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.

Back to top

Credits

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2015.2. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2015.

Murphy, Michael T. and Peter Pyle. 2018. Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski, Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2017). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015. Version 2.07.2017. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley guide to birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, USA.

Back to top