For the Birds Radio Program: Eastern Kingbird: Tyrant of All Tyrants

Original Air Date: Aug. 28, 1996

When Eastern Kingbirds try to lord it over eagles and airplanes, it’s easy to see how they got their name. 3:26

Audio missing


What’s black and white and dreaded all over, at least if you’re an insect? Tyrannus tyrannus—literally, the tyrant of tyrants.

The name conjures images of a rapacious dinosaur, but in reality refers to the Eastern Kingbird, a robust but somehow innocuous-looking flycatcher that perches conspicuously in trees and on phone wires. Whatever was the scientist who named it thinking?

Kingbirds are fairly common summer birds in the Northland, but are found in backyards only for those lucky enough to live on a river or lake, where kingbirds conduct their own personal mosquito abatement projects, subsisting indirectly on human blood. They eat a wide variety of other insects, too, including bees, as well as a smorgasbord of fruits and berries. In Central America, where they winter, they eat far more fruits than insects. But they never eat meat.

So how did they learn their tyrannical reputation? They may not hunt large birds and mammals, but a lone kingbird will defend its nest or territory against any perceived enemy with a ferocity that belies its two-ounce, dainty frame. Kingbirds have been recorded dive-bombing hawks, dogs, foxes, and cats, along with human bikers and hikers who weigh over 1000 times as much as they.

In Madison, Wisconsin, I once watched an adult Bald Eagle fly all the way across Lake Mendota only to be met by a kingbird’s fierce attack. The little kindbird flung itself at the enormous eagle’s head and back so persistently that the raptor ignominiously turned tail and flapped all the way back across the lake, the kingbird hot on its tail. There’s at least one record of a kingbird chasing a small airplane, but in this case the plane held its ground. If kingbirds had lived 65 million years ago, they most assuredly would have dive-bombed any Tyrannosaurus rex that dared stomp onto their territories.

Unlike most songbirds, kingbirds migrate during daytime, and loose flocks often fly along rivers and even above cities and suburban backyards where they’re easily watched. Unpicked cherries may lure them down for a better look. Most sightings of migrating flocks are during early morning and late afternoon.

The kingbird’s pure white underside, dark back, and white terminal tail band make fine field marks, but just as distinctive is its peculiarly flattened shape in flight. When I watch a kingbird migrating, I can’t help but imagine a bird that had been run over by a steamroller in a Gary Larson “Far Side” cartoon.

Kingbird migration through Minnesota and Wisconsin peaks in late August and early September, so this is the time to occasionally direct your eyes skyward if you want a chance to see one of these elegant, feisty little tyrants before they all disappear for the winter.