Contributed by Winsor Marrett Tyler
[Published in 1942:
Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin
When we think of the kingbird, even if it be winter here in the
north, and he is for the time thousands of miles away in the
Tropics, we picture him as we see him in summer, perched on the
topmost limb of an apple tree, erect in his full-dress suit--white
tie, shirt-front, and waistcoat--upright, head thrown back, his
eye roaming over his domain, on the watch for intruders. We see
him sail out into the air, moving slowly, although his wings are
quivering fast, then gaining speed and mounting higher as he comes
near his enemy--a crow, a hawk, any bird that has stirred his
resentment. We hear his high, sibilant, jerky voice ring out a
challenge; we watch him dive at the big bird, striking for his
back, and drive him off, and then come slithering back to his
watchtower, proclaiming victory with an explosion of stuttering
Spring.--Unlike most of our migrant
birds, the kingbird arrives in New England unobtrusively-- about
the tenth of May in the latitude of Boston--and for a few days
remains quiet, both in voice and demeanor. We are apt to see our
first kingbird of the season sitting silent and alone on a
fencepost or a wire or making a short flight out from a tree and
back again. It appears listless, as if not interested in its
surroundings, as if it were tired. There is none of the exuberance
of the Baltimore oriole, in full song when he returns to his
breeding ground, or of the showy arrival of the bronzed grackles
as they come pouring into New England in vast clattering hordes.
It is not long, however, before the kingbird throws off his
lethargy and appears in his true colors--the tyrant of tyrants.
Alexander F. Skutch has sent Mr. Bent an excellent account of
the kingbird's northward passage through Central America, where,
during the early stages of their long journey, the birds are
concentrated in large numbers. He says "Although only a bird
of passage through the great isthmus that stretches from
Tehuantepec to Darien, the kingbird, because of its large size,
active habits, and its custom of migrating by day in flocks, is
the most conspicuous of the flycatchers that visit Central America
from the north. The birds appear to enter Central America from
their winter home in South America about April 1, and the last do
not leave the region until nearly the middle of May.
"Kingbirds travel chiefly in the early morning and the
latter half of the afternoon. At these times I have on numerous
occasions watched them fly overhead in loose-straggling flocks of
irregular formation, sometimes containing, according to a rough
estimate, more than a hundred individuals. Thus, soon after dawn
on Apri1 28, 1935, as I was paddling along the shore of Barro
Colorado Island in the Canal Zone, a large flock of kingbirds flew
across Gatun Lake from east to west, or from the South American to
the North American side. They came to rest in the tops of some
small trees from which a few birds made sallies into the air to
snatch up insects, but after a pause of a minute or so they
continued on toward the west.
"During both years of my residence at Rivas, in the deep,
narrow, north-and-south valley of the Rio Buena Vista in southern
Costa Rica, I witnessed numerous northward flights of kingbirds in
April, always in the afternoon. On April 18, 1936, about half-past
four in the afternoon, I beheld several multitudinous flocks of
small birds come up the valley from the south, a few minutes
apart, flying high and straight as if they were journeying. There
were barn swallows, rough-winged swallows, kingbirds, and small
black swifts. The kingbirds were the first to drop out of the
flock. They settled in some low scattered trees to rest. There
were scores of them, and they made a substantial addition to the
large company of kingbirds already in the valley.
"On both their northward and southward passage through
Central America the kingbirds may break their journey and delay
for considerable periods in some locality which pleases them.
Although it is possible that the kingbirds one sees during the
course of several weeks in the same vicinity may represent a
population whose members change from day to day, the fact that
they roost every night in the same spot is to me rather convincing
evidence that the same individuals linger for more than one
"During the spring migration of 1936 the kingbirds roosted
nightly for nearly a month, from April 16 to May 11, on a small
islet covered with low trees, behind my cabin. I frequently
watched them congregate for the night or begin their day's
activities. On April 17, late in the afternoon, a large,
straggling flock settled in the riverwood trees on the brink of
the stream and from these sallied in their spectacular manner into
the open space above the channel, or high into the air, to capture
flying insects. Long before dark they began to congregate on the
little island. They did not immediately settle to rest but wove
gracefully among the branches and the long leaves of the wild cane
and skimmed above the foliage to snatch up some insect that
blundered temptingly close to them. Finally, as dusk deepened,
they became quiet among the inner recesses of the foliage where
they were so well concealed that I could not, even with my
glasses, pick out a single one.While in Central America they
rarely utter a sound."
(1927) says that the kingbird's "mating performance consists
in flying upward, and then tumbling suddenly in the air, repeating
the maneuver again and again, all the time uttering its shrill
cry." Dr. Charles W. Townsend (1920a) says of it: "The
Kingbird executes a series of zig-zag and erratic flights,
emitting at the same time a harsh double scream. This is a true
courtship flight song."
These flights take place at no great height from the
ground--15 or 20 feet, perhaps, above the top of an apple tree.
The dives are usually short, quick dips, accompanied by accented
notes, and in between them the wings flutter jerkily as the bird
rises again or progresses a short distance on a level.
Occasionally, however, the dip is much deeper--a long, slow dive.
I find in my notes of July 28,1909, that I observed their curious
flight evolutions many times. They flew out from a treetop, half
flying and half hovering, then, with wings almost still, but just
quivering, they slowly dropped almost to the ground, the while
jerking out in a high, squeaky, tremulous voice their ki-ki-ki,
A. Dawes DuBois wrote to Mr. Bent of a pair of kingbirds
courting on May 21, 1910. "One of them," he says,
"went through some very remarkable antics in the air, turning
backward somersaults while flying."
I once watched two kingbirds not 20 feet away whose behavior
strongly suggested a courtship of milder form than the wild
display in the air. Both were adult birds. One, a male I thought,
was perched not far from the other with feathers puffed out and
head erect and drawn back a little way. He twitched his tail
sharply downward over and over again, at the same time fanning it
out. These actions were plainly addressed to the other bird. Twice
he flew toward her (?), and she (?) retreated. Both birds were
silent except when once or twice one gave some sibilant notes.
These notes were not uttered while the bird was posturing; they
were not uttered with any emphasis; and they did not suggest the
kingbird's song at all.
Although the actions of this bird might well be suitable to
courtship--it is to be observed that the two ornamented parts of
the plumage (the crown patch and the tail) were displayed--the
date (July 25, 1917) is too late to expect courtship with breeding
intent. I do not doubt, however, that the performance represented
some form of nuptial display.
Nesting.--Like many birds whose
breeding range extends over a widely diverse country, such as the
mourning dove, the kingbird chooses a variety of nesting sites.
Here in eastern Massachusetts where a large part of the country
consists of farmland, orchards, acres of scattered trees, and
woodland of small, thin growth, a typically situated kingbird's
nest is built well up in an apple tree, often on a horizontal
limb, generally well out from the trunk, almost always shaded by
branches higher up. It is a rather large nest for the size of the
bird, and a little bulky. The outside is rough and unkempt, a heap
of twigs, straw, and twine, not finished off like the nest of the
wood pewee. Another favorite location here is in trees or low
shrubs growing along a river, often on branches overhanging the
water. In the West, however, in regions where there are few trees,
the kingbird may place its nest in the open, on a fencepost or a
stump, in a situation without concealment or shade.
Even in the East, the bird occasionally resorts to this
practice. Fred H. Kennard (1898) reports such a case of nesting,
in Bedford, Mass., a farming district, on a fencepost "within
35 feet of the railroad, and immediately beside a road, over which
men are travelling back and forth all day long. . . . This post
was made of an abandoned railroad tie, whose end had been somewhat
hollowed by decay. . . . The top of the post was only about four
feet above the ground."
The kingbird often shows its fondness for water by nesting on
stumps or snags on submerged land. For example, Ralph Works Chaney
(1910), writing of Michigan, says: "This species might be
considered almost aquatic in its nesting habits, as the nests were
invariably placed in stumps projecting out of the water, often at
a considerable distance from the shore," and William Brewster
(1937) speaks of kingbirds breeding "along stub-lined shores
bordering on northerly reaches of the Lake [Umbagog] or on shallow
lagoons in the heavily-timbered bottom-lands of the Lower
Megalloway. Those frequenting all such localities nested mostly
within hollow tree trunks. . . . Of the nests thus placed some
were sunk eight or ten inches below the upper rim of the cavity
and hence invisible save from above, others so near it that the
sitting bird, and perhaps also a small portion of the nest, could
be seen by any one passing beneath."
Of eccentric situations where kingbirds have nested, we may
note two instances in which a nest was built on the reflector of
an electric street light--A. C. Gardner (1921) and Rolf D. Rohwer
(1933)--and a very remarkable report of its nesting in a rain
gauge, Lincoln Ellison (1936). Stranger still, perhaps, are two
cases of kingbirds appropriating oriole's nests for their own use.
Henry Mousley (1916) tells of a pair of kingbirds that "took
possession of an old Baltimore Oriole's nest in the top of a maple
tree in front of my house, in which strange home they laid a third
set of eggs and brought up a brood," and Clarence Cottam
(1938) cites "the successful occupancy by an Eastern
Kingbird. . .of a deserted hanging nest of a Bullock Oriole. . . .
The nest. . .was attached about 12 feet above the ground to some
terminal and partly drooping branches of a cottonwood tree."
Edward R. Ford writes that he saw a kingbird sitting on a nest
which had been built and used by cedar waxwings the year before.
The height above the ground of the kingbird's nest varies
considerably: J. K. Jensen (1918) gives the extremes as
"from two to sixty feet."
Of "a typical nest" taken in Minnesota, Bendire
(1895) says: It "measures about 5 1/2 inches in outer
diameter by 3 1.4 inches in depth; its inner diameter is 3 inches
by 1 3/4 inches deep. Its exterior is constructed of small twigs
and dry weed stems, mixed with cottonwood down, pieces of twine,
and a little hair. The inner cup is lined with fine dry grass, a
few rootlets, and a small quantity of horsehair." Continuing,
he says: "Mr. E. A. McIlhenny tells me that in the willow
swamps in southern Louisiana these birds construct their nests
entirely out of willow catkins, without any sticks whatever, and
that the nests can be squeezed together in the hand like a
ball." Here in New England, where the birds breed in orchards
and dooryards and near farm buildings, they often pick up bits of
cloth, straw, feathers and pieces of string and add them to their
nest. J. J. Murray says that in Lexington, Va., a favorite
material is sheep wool and that the birds often nest in trees
along the edge of pastures where wool is easily obtained.
Kingbirds appear to have a very strong attachment to the
nesting site they have chosen and return year after year to its
immediate vicinity. Roy Latham (1924) gives a striking
illustration of this tendency at his home on Long Island, N. Y. In
spite of "development" that changed the face of the
country, the kingbirds did not desert it. He says: "The wild
cherries are gone, the old line-fences are gone, and the
Bob-whites are gone. But year after year a pair of Kingbirds
return each May and carefully select a nesting tree. Every tree on
the homestead has been used--some thrice over. In all those
thirty-five summers the Kingbirds have not failed once to bring
off a full brood. Yet in the entire period there has never been a
second pair breeding on the premises, or to my knowledge, making
any attempt to nest within the limits of the yard."
Kingbirds are averse to having another pair of kingbirds nest
near them, but they do not object to nesting near other species of
birds. As an extreme illustration of this habit, Charles M. Morse
(1931) published a photograph of two occupied nests 14 inches
apart, one a kingbird's, the other a robin's. He says: "The
two families lived in perfect harmony."
S. F. Rathbun wrote to Mr. Bent: "Once, when I was in
eastern Washington, I ran across a nest of this kingbird in a
small tree at the edge of a stream. Within 300 feet a pair of
Arkansas flycatchers had a nearly completed nest in another tree,
and not far away a pair of ash-throated flycatchers were nesting
in a box placed under the eaves of a dwelling. To me it was of
interest to see these three species of flycatchers nesting so near
M. G. Vaiden, of Rosedale, Miss., wrote to Mr. Bent: "I
found located in a large native pecan tree a nest of the kingbird,
wood pewee, red-eyed vireo, two English sparrow nests, and the
nest of a Baltimore oriole. All seemed more or less in perfect
accord except the wood pewee, whose nesting territory had been
crowded by the home of one of the sparrows. The wood pewee seemed
to do most of the fighting, with little if any attention paid by
the sparrow. Each probably had a vertical and horizontal area that
they defended, should the occasion arise."
According to Bendire (1895), "the male assists in the
construction of the nest, and to some extent in the duties of
incubation. He relieves the female from time to time to allow her
to feed, guards the nesting site, and is usually perched on a limb
close by, where he has a good view of the surroundings."
A most unusual nesting site for the eastern kingbird is
reported, in a letter to Mr. Bent, by Capt. H. L. Harllee, of
Florence, S. C. This pair of birds built a nest and laid a set of
eggs in a gourd that was suspended from a pole at the edge of a
yard in Beaufort County. The gourd, such as are commonly used by
purple martins in the South, happened to have large openings on
two opposite sides, which gave the birds convenient entrance and
exit, as well as some visibility while on the nest.
Eggs.--[AUTHOR'S NOTE: The eastern
kingbird lays three to five eggs to a set; three is the commonest
number and five decidedly uncommon or rare. The eggs are commonly
ovate, with variations toward short-ovate or elongate-ovate or,
rarely, elliptical-ovate. They are only slightly glossy. The
ground color is pure white, creamy white (most commonly), or
pinkish white, and very rarely decidedly pink. As a rule they are
quite heavily and irregularly marked with large and small spots,
or small blotches, but some are quite evenly sprinkled with fine
dots. The markings are in various shades of brown,
"chestnut-brown," "chocolate," "liver
brown," "claret brown," or "cinnamon,'' with
underlying spots and blotches of different shades of "Quaker
drab," "brownish drab," "heliotrope
gray," or "lavender." Very rarely an egg is nearly
The measurements of 50 eggs average 24.2 by 17.7 millimeters;
the eggs showing the four extremes measure 27.9 by 18.3,
23.6 by 19.8, 22.1 by 18.5, and 23.9 by 16.2
from what some oologists consider the most beautiful of eggs, the
young kingbirds remain in the nest for about 2 weeks. Gilbert H.
Trafton (1908) gives the time as 10 to 11 days, and A. D. Whedon
(1906) as about 18 days. Most writers, however, agree on 13 to 14
days as the average time.
Francis Hobart Herrick (1905) studied the nest life of the
kingbird in detail from a blind placed close to a nest which, with
the limb supporting it, he had moved a short distance to
facilitate observation. The nest contained four young birds, two
of them transferred from another nest. Writing of the day when the
nestlings were 10 days old, he says:
In the space of four hours . . .the parents made one hundred
and eight visits to the nest and fed their brood ninety-one times.
In this task the female bore the larger share, bringing food more
than fifty times, although the male made a good showing, having a
record of thirty-seven visits to his credit.
. . .During the first hour the young were fed on an average
of once in one and a half minutes. . . . The mother brooded
eighteen times, and altogether for the space of one hour and
twenty minutes. The nest was cleaned seven times, and the nest and
young were constantly inspected and picked all over by both birds,
although the female was the more scrupulous in her attentions. . .
. One of the birds while perched near by was seen to disgorge the
indigestible parts of its insect food, a common practice with
flycatchers, both old and young. . . .
The last [young bird] to leave [the nest] flew
easily two hundred feet down the hillside on the thirteenth of
July [i. e., when 18 days old].
Raymond S. Deck (1934) speaks of the effect of sunlight on the
behavior of the young birds. He says: "The nestlings appeared
to respond to the sun in a quite sunflowerly way. Early in the
morning they lay in the nest facing the rising sun. As the morning
wore on and the sun moved south, the birds shifted their position
to face constantly toward it. During the hottest part of the day
they lay facing north-east, directly away from the sun, but when
evening came the birds were lying with their faces toward the
sunset. On every subsequent day when I visited the nest the young
birds were facing east in the morning and they always went to
sleep at night facing west."
Early in July, here in New England, fledgling kingbirds are
full grown, although their tails may be rather short. We may see a
brood of them perched not far apart on a wire, or on an exposed
branch of a tree, waiting for their parents to bring them food.
They keep up a frequently repeated, high, short, emphatic note, tzee,
snapping their bills open and shut as they utter it, showing the
bright orange color of their throats, and when they see the old
bird approaching, they lean eagerly forward, and their voices
become rough and harsh. At times they fly out and meet the parent
bird in the air, where, to judge from their actions, food is
transferred to them with a good deal of chippering and fluttering.
Burns (1915) gives the incubation period as 12 to 13 days, and
several other observers agree with him closely.
Plumages.--[AUTHOR'S NOTE: The
natal down that soon appears on the otherwise naked nestling is
"mouse gray." The young bird in juvenal plumage is much
like the adult, but there is no orange crown patch; the nape and
rump are faintly edged with "cinnamon"; the wing coverts
are edged with pale buff, and the other paler edgings of the wing
feathers are pale buffy or yellowish white; the white tips of the
tail feathers are tinged with brownish, especially the outer ones;
there is a grayish band, tinged with buff, across the upper
breast; and the two outer primaries are not attenuated as in the
A postjuvenal molt begins before the birds migrate, but the
birds go south before even the body molt is complete. Dr. Dwight
(1900) says: "Birds taken in Central America, unfortunately
without dates, show that the species reaches the tropics without
any moult of the flight feathers or of the wing coverts and often
in full juvenal plumage. It is an interesting problem whether the
wings and tail are renewed at the end of the postjuvenal moult or
at a prenuptial moult, the former conclusion being most probable.
A bird from South America taken March 31 (which may possibly be an
adult) shows a recently completed moult the sheaths still adhering
to the new primaries."
That young birds have a complete postjuvenal molt during fall,
winter, and early spring is shown by the fact that they arrive in
spring in fresh plumage, including the two outer emarginate
primaries (in the male), the new white-tipped tail, and the orange
crown patch. Young birds, which were alike in juvenal plumage, now
show the sex differences of the adults.
The molts of the adults apparently follow the same sequence as
in the young birds. Adult males have the two outer primaries
attenuated, or emarginated, and the adult females only one, as a
rule. There is not enough winter material available to work out
the molts with certainty.]
Food.--F. E. L. Beal (1897)
summarizes the results of his analysis of the kingbird's food
thus: "Three points seem to be clearly established in regard
to the food of the kingbird: (1) that about 90 per cent consists
of insects, mostly injurious species; (2) that the alleged habit
of preying upon honeybees is much less prevalent than has been
supposed, and probably does not result in any great damage; and
(3) that the vegetable food consists almost entirely of wild
fruits which have no economic value. These facts, taken in
connection with its well-known enmity for hawks and crows, entitle
the kingbird to a place among the most desirable birds of the
orchard or garden."
In regard to the eating of bees, Beal (1897) states: "The
Biological Survey has made an examination of 281 stomachs [of
kingbirds] collected in various parts of the country, but found
only 14 containing remains of honeybees. In these 14 stomachs
there were in all 50 honeybees, of which 40 were drones, 4 were
certainly workers, and the remaining 6 were too badly broken to be
identified as to sex."
In a later paper Beal (1912) lists over 200 kinds of insects
found in kingbirds' stomachs, and the fruit or seeds of 40 species
To itemize the kingbird's diet more in detail, we may mention
Hairy caterpillars are reported by Mary Mann Miller (1899), who
says: "The Flycatchers darted upon the caterpillars as they
swung suspended by their webs or fed on pendant leaves."
H. H. Kopman (1915) states that "in the piney sections of
southeastern Louisiana and southern Mississippi, the Kingbird
feeds extensively in the fall on the ripened seeds of the two
common native magnolias (M. foetida and M. virginiana)."
William L. Bailey (1915), speaking of the feeding of nestling
kingbirds, says: "To my amazement a large green dragon-fly
with great head and eyes, measuring across the wings at least four
inches, was jammed wings and all, into the mouth of one of the
little ones. After a few minutes, as if for dessert, a large red
cherry fully one-half inch in diameter was rammed home in the same
Robert T. Morris (1912) relates the following: "There is a
sassafras tree. . .at my country-place at Stamford, Connecticut,
which bears a heavy crop of fruit every year, and about the last
of August the Kingbirds gather in numbers, spending the entire day
in the tree, and strip it entirely of its fruit. . . . At the time
when they are gorging themselves with sassafras berries, they seem
to devote little time to catching insects."
Dr. Harry C. Oberholser (1938) includes "small
fishes" as an item in the kingbird's diet.
The kingbird captures most of its food by pursuing a flying
insect and catching it in the air. Rarely, it snaps up a larva
suspended by a thread; and Dr. Charles W. Townsend (1920b)
reports: "I have seen a Kingbird swoop down and pick up an
insect from the calm surface of a pond without wetting a feather.
I have also seen one flying and picking off berries from a
shad-bush without alighting."
Of "terrestrial feeding kingbirds" William Youngworth
On June 3, 4, and 5, 1935, the Waubay Lakes region in
northeastern South Dakota was swept by high winds from the north
and the temperature during the night dropped to near the freezing
point. Heavy frost was visible on two mornings and it was such
weather that caught the last migrating wave of kingbirds and
orioles. It was a common sight to find hundreds of Common
Kingbirds, Arkansas Kingbirds, and Baltimore Orioles in the lee of
every small patch of trees or brush. The dust-filled air was not
only extremely cold, but apparently was void of insect life. Thus
the birds resorted to ground feeding, and here they hopped around
picking up numbed insects. Usually the birds just hopped in a
rather awkward manner from one catch to the next. However,
occasionally the kingbirds would flutter and hop while picking up
Behavior.--Dr. Harry C.
Oberholser (1938) exactly describes the habitat of the kingbird
when he writes that it "lives in the more open country, and
is not fond of the deep forests. Cultivated lands, such as
orchards and the borders of fields, highways, brushy pastures, or
even open woodlands, are frequented also. It is not usually found
in any considerable flocks, but during migration sometimes many
are found within a relatively small area."
If we were limited to one adjective to suggest the kingbird's
character as impressed on us by his behavior, I think most of us
would use the word "defiant"; if we were allowed one
more, perhaps we should add "fearless." In contrast to
most birds, whose concern is restricted to the immediate vicinity
of their nest, the kingbird's attention reaches far out. His perch
always commands a good view of the surrounding country; he is
always on the watch for the enemy. He reminds us of those
delightful young men in Romeo and Juliet who, let a Capulet
appear, flash out their swords and rush into a fight.
The kingbird seems to consider any big bird his enemy; he does
not wait for one to come near but, assuming the offensive, dashes
out at crow, vulture, or a big hawk--size seems to make no
difference to him--and practically always wins.
A. D. DuBois testifies to the genuineness of the kingbird's
attack thus: "The kingbird can be more than a mere annoyance
to its traditional enemy. I saw a pair attack a crow which was
flying near their nest. They made him croak, and one of them
perched on his back and pulled out a lot of his feathers, which
came floating down."
Gilbert H. Trafton (1908) also speaks of a fierce attack upon
himself at a nest he was watching. He says: "Whenever I
approached near enough the nest to set up the camera, the
Kingbirds flew at me furiously, poising themselves above me and
then darting quickly at my head, now coming near enough to strike
me with their bill. In no case was blood drawn, but, as they
usually struck about the same spot each time, I was glad of an
excuse to cover my head with a cloth while focusing the camera. .
. . They never attacked me unless both birds were present, and
even then only one came near enough to strike me."
Frederick C. Lincoln (1925), writing of North Dakota, says:
"On July 20 I watched a Kingbird attack a Hawk and saw it
alight on the back of the larger bird, to be carried 40 to 50
yards before again taking flight." J. J. Murray reports a
similar observation: "Near Lexington, Virginia, I saw a
kingbird chase an American egret for a hundred yards or more,
practically riding on its back."
Florence Merriam Bailey (1918) speaks thus of a kingbird
attacking so swift a bird as a black tern: "I saw [the tern]
beating over the open slough close by when suddenly chased after
by a Kingbird, chased so closely and persistently and rancorously
that if he were not pecked on the back, a deep dent was made in
his gray matter, for he fled precipitately through the sky, going
out into its grayness."
John R. Williams (1935) tells of a kingbird which repeatedly
attacked a low-flying airplane. He says: "The courage and
audacity of this bird in attacking a noisy and relatively huge
airplane was certainly extraordinary."
Isaac E. Hess (1910) states: "I have seen the Kingbird
victor in every battle except one. In this dispute 'Tyrannus' beat
a hasty retreat from the onslaughts of an angry Yellow
William Brewster (1937) relates another instance of the defeat
Despite his notorious daring in attacking hawks and crows,
the Kingbird sometimes turns tail and flees ignominiously, like
many another bully, when boldly faced by birds no larger or better
fitted for combat than himself. An instance of this happened today
[August 10, 1907] when I saw a Sapsucker pursue and overtake a
Kingbird in a cove of the Lake [Umbagog] . . . . As the two were
passing me within ten yards I could see the Sapsucker deal
oft-repeated blows with his sharp bill at the back of the Kingbird
who was doubling and twisting all the while, with shrill and
incessant outcry. . . . After the birds had separated the
Sapsucker alighted very near me on a stub, when I was surprised to
note that it was a young one, apparently of female sex.
The kingbird's flight varies considerably both in form and
tempo. In his quiet hours he may flutter calmly and steadily
along, neither rising nor falling, his long axis parallel to the
ground, moving slowly and evenly, his wings quivering in short,
quick vibrations--as Francis Beach White (1937) says,
"hovering all the way just over the top of the tall
grass." At other times, in his wilder moments, to quote Ned
Dearborn ( 1903), "the bird becomes a veritable fury, and
dashes upward toward the clouds, crying fiercely, and ever and
anon reaching a frenzied climax, when its cry is prolonged into a
kind of shriek, and its flight a zigzag of blind rage. These
exhibitions are frequently given in the teeth of the premonitory
gust before a thunder storm, as if in defiance of the very
I find an entry in my notes that shows how seldom kingbirds
move from place to place except by the use of their wings:
"June 1910. A pair of kingbirds spent much of their time one
afternoon feeding in a newly cultivated field of about an acre in
extent. They stationed themselves on small lumps of earth,
sometimes near together and sometimes in different parts of the
field, and watched for insects. When they saw one they flew to
capture it and then returned to the same little elevation, or to
another one. The wind was blowing hard, and invariably they
alighted facing it, turning just before perching. I did not,
during half an hour or so, see either bird take a step or make a
hop. They always flew, even to a point less than a foot
Francis H. Allen states: "Kingbirds sometimes hover,
facing into the wind as they feed, taking insects from the air.
Sometimes a strong breeze will blow them back, so that they seem
to be flying backward."
See also a note on flight under "Fall."
It is the custom of the kingbird to bathe by dashing down over
and over onto the surface of water as he flies along, as swifts
and swallows do. Dr. Charles W. Townsend (1920b) remarks: "It
is not uncommon to see a Kingbird plunge several times into the
water from a post or tree, evidently for a bath, and afterward
preen itself. I have also seen this method of bathing in a small
shallow birds' bath."
Of the brilliant feathers on the kingbird's crown, made visible
only by the parting of the surrounding feathers, J. A. Spurrell
(1919) says: "I have never seen the red crest on a living
kingbird except when displayed by a victorious male after
defeating a rival." Bayard H. Christy (1932), however, gives
a vivid picture of a kingbird using his crest for intimidation:
On the river side of the [golf] course, at a clump of
young pines, a Kingbird was hovering and screaming, and, as I came
near, I easily discovered the nest, about twenty feet up, on a
bough of one of the trees. As I stood at the base of the tree, at
the edge of the circle of the lower branches, the Kingbird came
plunging from above, directly toward my upturned face, and as it
did so it flashed out broadly its brilliant vermilion crown-patch.
The effect was astonishing: it gave the impression of a gaping
mouth, venomous and menacing, and, in spite of myself, I bowed my
head before the attack. The bird did not indeed strike, but
passing me narrowly it rose to repeat the manoeuvre. This was a
sudden demonstration of an unsuspected value of this splendid but
ordinarily concealed item of decoration. Is it decoration? It
seemed to me that a wandering squirrel or snake, potent for
mischief, might well by such a display be driven off, before ever
it had found the prize.
Voice.--The voice of the kingbird is
shrill, not overloud, with only moderate carrying power and
without a wide range of pitch. The letters tzi suggest the
simplest of his notes, although perhaps Bendire's (1895) "pthee"
is as good a rendering.
This note is delivered as a single, short, sharp exclamation,
and when lengthened or modulated in pitch forms the basis of
several more complicated utterances. It is often given alone,
repeated slowly over and over with a short pause between each
note, or repeated rapidly as a high, squeaky chatter, and it is
frequently combined with its lengthened form tzeee,
preceding or following the longer note, which is strongly
accented. Tzi, tzee is a common form.
Such phrases are characteristic of the bird when in a quiet
mood, but when he is aroused to belligerency we hear him utter
another note as he flies out to battle, a double note with falling
inflection (often rendered kipper) cried out in long series
which alternate with emphatic shrieks. This battle cry is somewhat
similar to the courtship song mentioned under "Courtship."
Rev. J. Hibbert Langille (1884) indicates very well the mode of
the kingbird's enunciation when he says: "His sharp screeping
note [is] coughed out and accompanied by a jerk of the tail."
The formal song of the kingbird is prettily described by Olive
Thorne Miller (1892), who was the first to publish an account of
it. She heard it, "a sweet though simple strain," early
in the morning when, as she says, "it was so still that the
flit of a wing was almost startling." She continues: "It
began with a low kingbird 'K-r-r-r' (or rolling sound
impossible to express by letters), without which I should not have
identified it at first, and it ended with a very sweet call of two
notes, five tones apart, the lower first, after a manner
suggestive of the phoebe--something like this: 'Kr-r-r-r-r-ree-be'!"
I remember the first time I heard the kingbird's song. It was
on July 8, 1908. I was walking home early in the morning from a
professional engagement. It was almost dark; an hour before
sunrise; about 3 o'clock. Soon the robin chorus began feebly; the
east was becoming pale now, and, after a little, a song sparrow
and a catbird woke in the dim bushes beside the road. I took a
short cut across a meadow, and as I was feeling my way along, I
heard a new bird note break out of the darkness in front of me.
The bird was beyond the meadow on a rise of ground where I knew
there were shade trees, and farther on was an orchard.
I suspected the singer at once, but I was not sure. The voice
was high and sharp, with the squeaky quality characteristic of Tyrannus,
but the arrangement of the notes was wholly strange. They formed a
short musical theme of three syllables repeated again and again
with a long pause after each one. As I came nearer, however, I
found that a part of each pause was filled in by a series of high,
short, stuttering notes, given in a hesitating fashion. These
notes led up to and immediately preceded the clearly enunciated,
emphatic theme. I wrote down the whole song as i-i-i-i-i, ee,
tweea, with both double e's strongly accented. It was
all on one even tone, or nearly so, except at the very end where
the pitch either dropped a little (suggesting the song of Sayornis
phoebe), or rose still higher.
I sat down on a wall near the invisible singer and waited.
Again and again the song came from overhead; the bird was singing
virtually in black night, shouting out a sharp song, which, in
spite of its high, squeaky pitch, was in tune with that peaceful,
shadowy hour before the morning twilight.
Gradually dawn brightened the east; green spread over the dark
gray meadow. I looked up and saw a kingbird, quietly perched on a
branch above my head.
A few days later Walter Faxon, after listening to the song,
remarked to me, "He is trying to pronounce the word 'explicit,'
but he is making a miserable, stuttering failure of it."
Although heard oftenest in the morning before dawn, the song is
occasionally given in the daytime. I have heard it several times
on misty summer afternoons--gray, almost colorless days--and once,
August 12, 1909, at noon, under a blue sky.
Dr. Leon Augustus Hausman (1926) has made a careful study of
"The Utterances of the Kingbird" to which readers
are referred. To quote from his summary: "The various cries
and calls of the Kingbird, as well as the flight song, are all
built up from the simple call notes, which are best represented by
the syllables kitter and kit, and differ from one
another in grouping, length and intensity. The flight song may be
regarded as a true song, and is given only during the mating
season. The mating song is seldom heard; is more musical in
character than the flight song; possesses a definite song-rhythm
and two new, true song-notes."
Albert R. Brand (1938), who has recorded on film the songs and
calls of almost 100 species of birds, summarizes the results of
his investigation thus: "I believe that these studies are
sufficiently comprehensive to warrant the conclusion that
passerine song averages above 4,000 vibrations per second or
around the highest note of the piano keyboard." He records
the kingbird's voice as 6,225 vibrations per second (approximate
mean), very close in pitch to the song of the redstart (6,200).
Field marks.--The eastern
kingbird is a large flycatcher with a broad white line across the
tip of its black tail, two very inconspicuous wing bars, and no
yellow in its plumage. Of the two flycatchers that resemble the
eastern kingbird in general appearance, the gray kingbird and the
Arkansas kingbird, the former has no white in its gray tail, and
the latter has the tail margined with white and has a. yellowish
breast. Ralph Hoffmann (1904) says: "The black tail,
broadly tipped with white, and the white under parts
make the Kingbird an easy bird to identify, even from a car
Enemies.--The kingbird has few
enemies. A hawk may occasionally catch him off guard, and once in
a while a misguided apiarist or proprietor of a cranberry bog may
turn against him.
Formerly man was the bird's deadly enemy. Both Wilson and
Audubon deplored the wholesale slaughter of kingbirds in their day
by farmers for fancied depredations on their bees. Nowadays,
however, the kingbird is protected as a song bird.
Dr. Herbert Friedmann (1929) says that "the Kingbird is a
very uncommon victim of the Cowbird, there being only a very few
actual cases on record, although several writers have listed it,
probably all based on the same published instances."
Fall.--Kingbirds keep mostly in
family units until well into August; when migration time is near,
these small groups coalesce and form flocks of a dozen birds or
more. Now, nearly silent, they sit about on wires, fences, and
trees, or in open country on the ground, loosely associated,
showing little tendency to move in unison, although individual
birds take short flights from time to time. Occasionally, however,
they become more active and restless. For example, on August 15,
1936, I saw a gathering of 15 or 20, flying about over a meadow
just before sunset. They were not noisy but gave frequently a
subdued z-z-z-z-zee. Sometimes they flew out in groups of
three or four, making swoops at each other; sometimes they perched
for a moment, a few together, in the top of a tree, their feathers
drawn in close, and their necks stretched out, posturing as cedar
waxwings often do. In making long flights the wings were carried
backward in full, free strokes--almost as far as a robin's. When
they flew thus, as they did most of the time, they moved through
the air very rapidly and lost all resemblance to kingbirds.
Occasionally they flew for short distances with the characteristic
P. A. Taverner and B. H. Swales (1907) describe an impressive
flight at Point Pelee, Ontario, Canada. They say: "In 1907,
when we arrived August 24, Kingbirds were very common and
distributed all over the Point and the adjoining mainland. Each
day brought more, until by the 27th there were a greater number of
Kingbirds present than any of us had ever seen at one time before.
Most of them were in the waste clearings near the end of the
Point, where at times we saw flocks numbering, hundreds of
individuals. The dead trees scattered about the edges of these
clearings were at all times more or less filled with them and it
was no uncommon sight to see from fifteen to twenty in one small
To quote again from A. F. Skutch's notes: "The southward
migration of kingbirds passes through Central America during
September and the first half of October. In 1930 I saw more
kingbirds during the autumn at Tela, on the northern coast of
Honduras, than I have seen in any other locality. Here I kept
watch over a roost of kingbirds during the southward migration.
The site they selected as their sleeping place was a patch of tall
elephant grass, higher than a man's head and very dense, which
already was the nightly shelter of myriads of small seed-eaters of
four species, of the resident Lesson's orioles and of the flocks
of orchard orioles that had arrived somewhat earlier. It was a
surprise to find the kingbirds, those creatures of high and open
spaces, consorting in slumber with the humble seed-eaters, yet all
got along most amicably together. The new arrivals were silent
among all that chattering throng. At dusk I would see them
hovering on beating wings, or moving slowly between the tall grass
stalks, often circling and turning, more rarely making a short
dart into the open space above, picking up a few final morsels
before they settled down in sleep. Because of their active habits
and indifference to concealment, the kingbirds were, during their
sojourn in the valley, one of the most conspicuous members of its
Contributed by Winsor
*Original Source: Bent,
Arthur Cleveland. 1942. Smithsonian Institution United
States National Museum Bulletin 179: 11-29. United States
Government Printing Office
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