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ALWAYS IN SEASON/ MIKE JACOBS: Kings and conquerors in the bird world

Illustration by Mike Jacobs1 / 2
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Lest you should think I have become a crank about inaptly named birds, let me present the western kingbird, a species whose range matches nearly exactly the conventional definition of "The West" in North America. So, too, is the kingbird's behavior despotic, as we Americans have assumed a monarch's would be. The kingbird even displays a little crown.

Scientifically, the western kingbird is a member of a group called "tyrant flycatchers." The fly catcher part is self-explanatory. These birds are insect eaters in the main. The tyrant part refers to their territoriality. Kingbirds tend to drive other species away, and they are not always gentle about it.

The flycatchers are the largest of the world's bird families, numbering more than 400 species in the Western Hemisphere. The "tyrants," members of a genus or sub-group of the family, include eight species that occur in North America; two of them are common here, and both are known as kingbirds. We've met the western kingbird. Its counterpart is called the eastern kingbird.

The eastern kingbird occurs across the continent from the Florida Keys to the southern Yukon Territory and from the Atlantic Coast to the Rocky Mountains — a range hardly as the term "eastern" would imply. Of course, most American bird species were named by people moving from east to west, and the eastern species would have been encountered first.

These two kingbird species are only superficially alike. They have the same general size and shape, and their habits are similar. The eastern kingbird is a two-toned bird, dark gray on the top side, shading into black on the head, and white below. The western kingbird is a rich ash-gray in color, sometimes showing greenish tinges. Its belly is yellow and its tail black with white outer feathers.

Both species have white at the end of the tail. Both also have a red or chestnut mark on the top of the head, but the bird guides concede this is hard to see.

The kingbirds are conspicuous. The western kingbird can be found in almost any stand of trees, including farm shelterbelts, where it makes itself obvious by perching on exposed branches. Several years ago, a reader stumped me with a description of "the mailbox bird," so-called because it habitually perched on the mailbox. Behavior made the identification here. The bird made frequent forays from its perch, typical kingbird behavior.

Kingbirds make themselves conspicuous by screeching at intruders. They are daring creatures, not at all reluctant to pursue much larger birds that stray into their domains, including hawks, owls and crows. The kingbirds are effective in these chases because they are smaller and maneuver more easily than the larger birds.

The western kingbird is more an open country bird that often is seen perched on wires, though it also seeks trees or shrubs for nest sites.

The western kingbird's range reaches its eastern edge in the Red River Valley. Birds encountered much farther east are stragglers. Or they may be immigrants.

The western kingbird's range has expanded dramatically. As European settlement spread westward, this kingbird exploited new habitat and spread eastward. Robert Stewart gives an account of this in "Breeding Birds of North Dakota." Elliot Coues, who recorded birds while posted to a military survey of the international border in 1873, did not mention seeing the western kingbird, although his duty took him as far west as the Souris River Valley about two-thirds of the distance across the state. Elmer Judd, a keen birder who later became the state's Game and Fish commissioner, said western kingbirds weren't present at Cando, N.D., in 1892 but by 1910, they were as frequent as eastern kingbirds. Observers west of the Missouri River, on the other hand, found that western kingbirds were common, nesting in every wooded ravine.

A similar story is presented by the Manitoba Naturalists Society in "The Birds of Manitoba." Western kingbird nests first were reported in the province in 1907. By 1911, it was well established in the southwestern part of the province, and a year later, it had reached the Winnipeg area directly north of Grand Forks. By 1930, it had reached the limits of its present range.

It's hard not to conclude that these birds are kings as well as conquerors.

The season for kingbirds is nearing its end locally. Kingbirds are insect eaters, and they begin migrating in August, heading to Mexico and Central America.

A third species of kingbird has occurred here. This is Cassin's kingbird, a southwestern species that is quite similar to the western kingbird. Tim Driscoll, otherwise known as the regional raptor expert, found and identified a Cassin's kingbird northwest of Grand Forks in November 2010.