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ALWAYS IN SEASON: Sad anniversaries in the bird worldThe mystery of the ‘mailbox bird’

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One day, a couple of decades ago, a caller wanted to know the “real name” of the “mailbox bird.”

It was gray, she said, and not very big, and it sat on her mailbox along a rural road.

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I took her phone number and told her I’d think about it.

In an instant, the answer was clear. The instant occurred when I turned into my own driveway along a rural road.

An eastern kingbird flew off the mailbox.

The mailbox bird!

The caller had seen the bird from the back, and it is dark gray.

Seen straight on, though, the eastern kingbird shows a brilliant white breast. No one would call it gray.

There are two other plumage details. The tip of the tail is white, and there is a tiny stripe of red on the top of the head. Kingbirds don’t show this very often and usually only to each other. It’s a kind of invitation, so to speak.

Eastern kingbirds are common in the Red River Valley — and virtually across the continent, despite their name. Probably every farmyard has at least one pair, and any substantial shelterbelt will have kingbirds, too. They also occur on the Red River Greenway in Grand Forks, but I wouldn’t expect them in a back yard, unless it was very large and fairly open.

This describes a typical “edge habitat,” where open areas meet wooded cover. This combination gives the kingbird adequate perches and plenty of space to zoom off after insects.

This is flycatcher behavior, and the kingbird is a member of the flycatcher clan, one of the so-called tyrant flycatchers. This gives us the bird’s real name — in Latin, “Tyrannus tyrannus,” which means, pretty much, “the tyrant’s tyrant.”

The eastern kingbird has earned this name by its aggressive behavior. It is relentless in defending its nest and its mate, and it won’t tolerate any invasion of its territory by beast, bird or birdwatcher.

So bold is the kingbird, in fact, that it will pursue much larger birds, including crows and hawks. They are superb fliers and get right up against the neck of a hawk or crow, which uses its long wings to outpace the much smaller kingbird.

The aggravation must be intense, even if the race is one-sided — and of course, the kingbird has accomplished its purpose by driving away potential predators.

Kingbirds are noisy, too, but not in an appealing way, at least to human ears.

Here’s how the species monograph in the American Ornithologists’ Union’s monograph describes the kingbird’s calls:

“Numerous calls exist; none described as musical. Calls are high-pitched, hard and crisp; often emitted explosively, as if the bird is sputtering.”

Males do have a kind of song, but it isn’t often heard, for two reasons. Males use it only to announce themselves to other males — and if no other males are present, the song is useless. Second, the males sing only early in the season and very early in the morning and, more rarely, at dusk. For this reason, this vocal array is called “the dawn song.”

Here’s how the AOU describes the song: “Continuous, complex alternation of two complex phrases ‘t’t’zeer, t’t’zeer, tzeetzwwrzee.’ ”

The eastern kingbird is one of two kingbirds in our area. The other is the western kingbird, which is more aptly named. The Red River Valley is at the northeastern edge of the western kingbird’s range. In our area, it occurs about as far east in Minnesota as Roseau and Clearwater counties.

Curiously, the western kingbird is regular in a narrow band that runs eastward across the state to the Twin Cities area.

But it is entirely absent from both the northeastern corner of the state, where there isn’t much kingbird habitat, and the southeastern corner, where there’s plenty of habitat that kingbirds could be expected to favor.

The explanation may be that in pre-settlement times, southeastern Minnesota was heavily timbered, as the northeast still is.

Plus, the eastern kingbirds may be just aggressive enough to have repelled any eastward migration of its western cousin.

The species are easily distinguished. Western kingbirds are pale gray with lemon-yellow on the belly and with the tail edged in white.

Jacobs is a retired publisher of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

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