Americans have always had an affection for a fighter who does
not hesitate to take on an adversary many times his size and strength. After all,
didnt we take on the mighty British Empire and win, sending them back across the
Atlantic? This love of the "fighting underdog" is part of our national heritage.
explains, I think, the quantity of excellent writing on the Eastern Kingbird, Tyrannus
tyrannus, in ornithological literature. When I started reading about this fearless
little bird not quite seven inches in length I was amazed at the number of
accounts that centered on the kingbirds
aggressive temperament. Any bird venturing into a kingbirds sphere of protective
influence is attacked without hesitation.
The sleek, handsome bird with a white-tipped tail, black head and back, and white
underparts attacks vultures, ravens, hawks, "...any bird that has stirred his
resentment," to quote an early writer. In particular, kingbirds go after crows. They
have been observed landing on the backs of the big birds and pecking furiously. One pulled
feathers from a crows back and caused the big black marauder to croak with...fear,
And then theres the account of a kingbird that in 1935 was observed attacking a
small Piper Cub airplane! The kingbird deserves his Latin name, Tyrannus tyrannus.
Roughly translated, it means double tyrant or fearless monarch twice.
The birds strident notes he does not have a song give voice to my
own irritability when summers oppressive, pulsating heat hangs over the land day and
night. One sultry July afternoon years ago, I watched a bickering family of kingbirds that
gathered on the fence to quarrel among themselves. The three young begged for food while
an adult sailed out into the air, snapped up a flying insect, and returned to poke it into
the yellow, open mouth of a fledgling.
All the while, the adults kept up a constant chatter of high-pitched, bickering notes
that sounded like dzee-dzee-dzee and changed, on occasion, to kit-kit-kitter.
However the calls are translated, they gave voice to my discomfort from the heat of high
The kingbird is a member of the flycatcher family, Tyrannidae. So outstanding a
member is the little tyrant that his genus, Tyrannus, gives the family its name in
Latin. Birds in this family perch on exposed branches and dart out to capture flying
insects out of the air, often with an audible snap of the flat-based bill.
One member of the family, the Eastern Phoebe named for his call repeats
the name over and over and seems exasperated that "Phoebe" does not respond
immediately. This grayish-brown, tail-flipping flycatcher builds her mud-and-moss nest
under bridges and on buildings.
Another flycatcher, the Wood Pewee, calls his plaintive, drawn out pee-a-wee,
pee-a-wee incessantly during the searing days of summer, as if complaining of the
All flycatchers are gray, black or brown and a few have a yellow wash in their
plumages. Only the Vermillion Flycatcher of the arid southwest is noted for his color, a
The Eastern Kingbird winters in South America and, being a diurnal migrant, makes a
long, overland daytime flight to the United States, snapping up flying insects as he goes.
Following ancient corridors without walls, the kingbird traverses Central America, flies
north through Mexico to nest throughout the United States where there are trees near water
Tyrannus tyrannus arrives in the mid-Atlantic states the first week in April,
returning often to the same tree in which it built a nest or hatched from an egg the
At one time in the history of the relationship between humans and the Eastern Kingbird,
the little tyrant was shot by farmers who kept beehives in the mistaken belief that the
bird was snatching too many bees out of the air. "Bee martins," they were
called. A study of the stomachs of 665 kingbirds revealed that honeybees were found in
only 22 stomachs, of which 61 were drones, those slow-flying males whose only job is to
mate with a queen bee. As so often happens with humans and our perception of destructive
tendencies of wildlife, we were wrong. Careful, systematic research proves us so.
Kingbirds are now protected by federal law. They are now appreciated for their
feistiness, elegant black-and-white plumage, and graceful flight as they sail into the air
after an insect. The kingbird seems to fly on the very tips of its wings.
Because there are more flying insects around water, the kingbird usually chooses a tree
growing near a pond or lake for its nest.
No less an authority than Francis Herrick noted ornithologist and biographer of
John James Audubon spent hours observing the nest life of the kingbird. In 1905, he
observed that "...four nestlings, ten days old, were in the space of four
hours visited by the parents one hundred and eight times and the young birds were
fed ninety-one times." All the while the adults kept an alert watch for any possible
threat to the young!
Along with others who have observed and admired kingbirds, I am in awe of the bravery
of the flycatcher Tyrannus tyrannus the little king, afraid of nothing.