For the Birds Radio Program: Eastern Kingbird

Original Air Date: Sept. 2, 1987

Tyrannus tyrannus lives up to its name.

Audio missing


(Recording of an Eastern Kingbird)

If Tyrannosaurus rex–that most terrible of all the dinosaurs– suddenly returned to life, it would find a modern bird right after its own heart–Tyrannus tyrannus, the tyrant of all tyrants. The Eastern Kingbird is a songbird that weighs less than 2 ounces, but it makes up for its size in sheer feistiness. Kingbirds are often seen taking on hawks, vultures, and other huge birds, and not just on their territories, either. One time in Madison, Wisconsin, I watched a lone kingbird take on an adult Bald Eagle–the southbound eagle was flying high in the sky across Lake Mendota, several hundred yards from the kingbird’s territory, when the kingbird took off after it. The kingbird won the joust, as they usually do–it darted in and pecked at the eagle’s back for a couple of minutes until the eagle ignominiously turned tail and headed back north.

Kingbirds raise their young with the same gusto. One ornithologist who observed nesting kingbirds discovered that “in the space of four hours, the parents made 108 visits to the nest and fed their brood ninety one times. Another ornithologist who watched a kingbird feed its nestlings wrote–“To my amazement, a large green dragonfly with great head and eyes, measuring across the wings at least four inches, was jammed, wings and all, into the mouth of one of the little ones. After a few minutes, as if for dessert, a large red cherry fully one-half inch in diameter, was rammed home in the same manner.”

Kingbirds are handsome birds, with an immaculate white underside, blackish gray upper parts, and a white band on the end of the tail. Males have a crimson flash patch on their heads which they expose to intimidate a perceived enemy.

Farmers used to shoot kingbirds in huge numbers, mistakenly believing that the kingbirds would decimate their honeybees. The U.S. Biological Survey laid that fear to rest in 1897, when they examined the stomach contents of 281 kingbirds collected in various parts of the country. Of all these birds, only 14 had consumed any honeybees at all. As enlightened farmers started allowing kingbirds to remain unmolested, they discovered one big advantage to having kingbirds around–these aggressive birds chased away hawks and crows from the chicken coops.

Kingbirds start migrating in early August–right now is the peak of their migration through Minnesota and Wisconsin. They’re headed for the Amazon basin, where they’ll give up their summer diet of insects for a specialized fruit diet. Their numbers have declined throughout the country in the past decade because of loss of habitat in the tropical rain forest. It’s frightening to think about all the implications of rain forest destruction–especially because we’re powerless to stop it. Fully 245 species of North American birds winter in the tropics–the kingbird is just one of the many creatures suffering in the name of progress.

(Recording of an Eastern Kingbird)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”