Contributed by Winsor Marrett Tyler
[Published in 1942: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 179: 11-29]
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 notes.
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 night's lodging.
"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."
Courtship.--Ralph Hoffmann (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, etc.
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 each other."
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 immaculate.
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 millimeters.]
Young.--Hatched 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 adult.
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 of plants.
To itemize the kingbird's diet more in detail, we may mention the following:
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 manner."
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 (1937) says:
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 an insect.
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 Warbler."
William Brewster (1937) relates another instance of the defeat of Tyrannus:
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 elements."
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 away."
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 window."
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 mincing fluttering.
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 tree."
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
Eastern Kingbird* Tyrannus tyrannus
*Original Source: Bent, Arthur Cleveland. 1942. Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 179: 11-29. United States Government Printing Office