If you’re looking for an iconic bird of summer, the eastern kingbird would be a pretty good choice. The kingbird is widespread in our area, and conspicuous. Some would say obnoxious.
These are reasons that the kingbird comes to mind about this time of year, when we celebrate the transition from monarchy to republic in North America.
Of course, this meant little to the kingbird, although the species is probably more numerous now than it was in olden days. Thomas Jefferson’s ideas about land ownership contributed mightily to the kingbird’s success. It is a bird of shelterbelts and tree claims, both of which arose from the government land survey, a Jeffersonian brain storm that was incorporated into the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. No single human action has had a more extensive and more lasting impact on the American landscape – and not just in the United States but in Canada as well. The Canadians start counting from a different point, but the idea is the same. The landscape is divided into mile-square sections.
For humans, this system provides enormous advantages. The most important is that it makes locating any parcel of land pretty easy, and that means that recording ownership becomes possible and that agricultural improvements can be made and that distribution systems of several kinds – roads, railroads, telegraph and telephone lines – can be laid out arrow-straight across the landscape.
This matters to the kingbirds, too, because kingbirds are denizens of open stands of timber, precisely the kind of habitat that a shelterbelt provides. Robert E. Stewart describes this in his “Breeding Birds of North Dakota,” published in 1975. The eastern kingbird, he says, is “largely restricted to areas of open-canopy woodlands or to areas containing scattered thickets or groves of small trees and shrubs. These include edge habitats created by man, such as shelterbelts, hedgerows, orchards, and partially wooded residential areas of farmsteads and towns.”
“Natural edge habitats” are used, as well, but these have been hugely augmented by man-made landscape features, many of them laid out along Jefferson’s grid.
This is just one reason to hold the kingbird up on the nation’s birthday. The other is that the kingbird is temperamentally a tyrant. It harasses other birds, including birds much larger than itself, and it sometimes pursues humans that venture too close to nests – and I’m convinced sometimes just for fun.
This thought arose again the other night while I was walking along a rural section line heading due east across the landscape. To my right was a shelterbelt, just as straight with the world as the prairie road itself. Between the road ditch and the trees was an overhead line, the one that brings electricity to the place that Suezette and I share west of Gilby, N.D. And from that line a kingbird headed right for me.
This isn’t unusual behavior. My first encounter of this kind occurred on my family’s farm in Mountrail County, 250 miles due west and a little bit north of where we now live. I was a stripling, eight years old or so, and I’d constructed quite an elaborate hideaway in the tree row to the west of the farmstead. I didn’t realize that I had intruded on the kingbird’s domain, but I learned it pretty quickly. The bird’s noise betrayed my hiding place.
Kingbirds are common, conspicuous and noisy at the place Suezette and I shared in Mountrail County, her family’s ranch. The birds never wandered far from the tree rows, though. Long walks on the prairie pastures never yielded a kingbird. They are quickly recognizable, too, a uniform gray color above and quite immaculately white below, with a white edge on the tail.
The kingbird is possessive of its territory. It’s usual to see kingbirds pursuing intruders, including those much larger than the kingbird itself; crows, for instance, or owls.
This sort of behavior is shared by a number of closely related species collectively known as tyrant flycatchers. The eastern kingbird is one of these. The name is a bit misleading, since the eastern kingbird occurs well to the west of what any geographer would count as part of the “East.” The western kingbird, similar in shape but not in plumage, has a range that more closely approximates its descriptive name, almost perfectly matching the usual concept of the West, which ends pretty much where the forested zone begins an hour or so east of the Red River. It’s a light gray bird with a lemon-yellow belly. Even as far west as the Red River Valley, the western kingbird is regular, though it is not so common here as its eastern counterpart.
The eastern kingbird has a plumage feature, a red blaze on the top of its head that somehow suggests a crown.
On the Fourth of July, though, it’s probably best to dwell on the bird’s behavior, its territoriality and its aggressive defense of what it possesses, the kind of traits typical of kings and tyrants, and just the kind of thing that fired Jefferson’s imagination as the nation was a-borning.
Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.