For The Birds

The Feisty Little King, Bird That Is
by John Trott, Contributing Columnist

For The Birds
The sleek, handsome kingbird is a fearless fellow who won’t hesitate to take on an adversary twice his size.
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, didn’t 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.

This 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 kingbird’s aggressive temperament. Any bird venturing into a kingbird’s 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 crow’s back and caused the big black marauder to croak with...fear, alarm, pain?

And then there’s 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 bird’s strident notes — he does not have a song — give voice to my own irritability when summer’s 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 summer.

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 heat.

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 brilliant scarlet.

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 for nesting.

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 previous summer.

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.


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