Living Bird Magazine
Eastern KingbirdTyrannus tyrannus
- ORDER: Passeriformes
- FAMILY: Tyrannidae
With dark gray upperparts and a neat white tip to the tail, the Eastern Kingbird looks like it’s wearing a business suit. And this big-headed, broad-shouldered bird does mean business—just watch one harassing crows, Red-tailed Hawks, Great Blue Herons, and other birds that pass over its territory. Eastern Kingbirds often perch on wires in open areas and either sally out for flying insects or flutter slowly over the tops of grasses. They spend winters in South American forests, where they eat mainly fruit.More ID Info
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.
- Tirano Dorso Negro (Spanish)
- Tyran tritri (French)
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.
- Cool Facts
- 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 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.
- 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 almost completely on insects and fruit for moisture; they are rarely seen drinking water.
- The oldest recorded Eastern Kingbird was a female, and at least 10 years, 1 month old when she was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in New York in 2007.