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A Bird in Hand

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A Bird in Hand

The mis-named Eastern Kingbird

Our bird this month is the Eastern Kingbird. And why this particular specie? Three reasons. First, it is expanding its range and that warrants some examination. Second, it has a cool, cool scientific name. Third, it is a common bird, easy to identify, and great fun to watch.

Despite its name, the Eastern Kingbird is found across North America. During colonial times it appeared to be limited to the edges of pastures, swamps, and other open areas that were fringed by forest and water along the Atlantic seaboard. Today it reaches almost to the Pacific by way of Washington state. It reaches us by way of the arc of the Great Plains that juts into Alberta. From there the specie has spread itself into Montana, Idaho, eastern Washington, northeastern Oregon and the southern parts of British Columbia. While bird breeding surveys suggest that the total continental population is stable, it is decreasing in the east and expanding in the west. They can’t be migrating out here because of real estate prices!

The bird’s scientific name is Tyrannus Tyrannus. Is that cool or what? In Latin tyrannus means tyrant or king, so this kingbird is the king of the kings! Of course, Tyrannus is the genus name and covers all the kingbirds, including the Western Kingbird. The Western is also common in our area and inhabits similar habitat as the Eastern. They do not look anything alike. The Western is also expanding its range and moving eastward into the mid-western states. In about thirty years we are going to have reconsider the common names for both of these birds!

The kingbirds probably get their name for the really, really aggressive behavior that they exhibit while defending their nests. They are known to attack any and every bird, from other kingbirds to large predatory birds. I don’t know if the Eastern Kingbird is more tyrannical than any other, but its Latin name probably reflects it being the nominate specie of this genus (the first discovered by pioneering ornithologists). Thus, the double name.

So how is the Eastern Kingbird identified in the field? Slightly smaller than a robin in size, it is a handsome bird, black overall and with a white breast, belly, and vent. The white extends up to a sloping line drawn from the black beak to the shoulders. The eyes, neck, and rounded crest are also black. What really stands out on this bird is the bright band of white edging on the tip of the tail. This is highly visible in both the perched and flying birds.

The Eastern Kingbird sits on a conspicuous perch where it remains vigilant for any flying insect. While floating the Pack River with my niece and two nephews this past July I watched an Eastern Kingbird fly lazily upward to snag a huge bug that had the misfortune of crossing the river in kingbird territory. The Eastern will also engage in crazy acrobatics as it twists and turns in pursuit of a bee or other flying insect. They are great fun to watch!

Easterns spend the winter in South America where they dine primarily on fruit. The come “home” to our region in the summer to raise their families and then head back to the tropics for the winter. Some individuals will occasionally overwinter in the southern United States, but unlike other birds with similar migratory patterns, they haven’t established any year round populations.

Want to see an Eastern Kingbird? Head for the intersection of forest, water, and field. They will be perched in a conspicuous spot. Look for a bird that sometimes seems to flutter like a big black butterfly and you found your Eastern. Happy birding!

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

birds, outdoors, birding, Eastern Kingbird

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