Wednesday, June 5, 2013

King of the Birds

Kingbirds are a cool group of birds with a well-deserved reputation for chutzpah (audacity). Eastern Kingbirds breeds across much of the eastern 2/3 of the U.S. and Canada

Western Kingbirds breed in the western half of the country

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, juv.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, female. They breed mainly in the south-central area of the U.S. but can wander far.

Fork-tailed Flycatcher is rare and breeds in Cent. and S. America and is a vagrant to anywhere in North America, mostly to eastern North America. This one showed up in NH.

They have really long tails!

Fork-tailed Flycatcher in flight

Eastern Kingbirds breed on our pond here in NH, building their nest in the Buttonwood shrubs at the edge of the water. These big flycatchers sit on perches and fly out to catch insects in the air and will go after any larger birds they consider a threat to their territory. We have even seen them land on the back of a crow they were attacking.  We love to bring our binos in our canoe or kayaks and watch the kingbirds flying out over the water, uttering their 2-part chittering call, "kitterkitterkitter." Known for their fierce personality, they were given the scientific name, Tyrannus tyrannus, hence the joke that they are "too (two) tyrannical."

If you live in the West, you will see their relative the Western Kingbird, which has a gray head and back and yellow on the belly. Amazingly, we once had a Western Kingbird show up on our property here in southwest, NH, way out of it's range, but they are know to wander far and wide.

To help you sort out kingbird ID, here are our Identification Tips to Kingbird Species ID, from page 477 of our, best-selling, "The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America" which has now been split into two regional guides, The New Stokes Field Guide to Birds: Eastern and Western Regions, that also contain the same information.

"Kingbirds are fairly large flycatchers that belong to the genus Tyrannus. Most have rather large thick bills and medium-length tails, and they tend to perch conspicuously as they look for insects. Two species, the Fork-tailed and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, have extremely long tails; four species, Tropical, Couch's, Cassin's, and Western Kingbirds, are similarly colored, with grayish heads and bright yellow bellies; the remaining three species, Thick-billed, Gray, and Eastern Kingbirds are mostly dark gray above and white below. In this group, look closely at the length and thickness of the bill and the patterns of colors on the breast and belly.

Which kingbirds do you have in your area?


  1. We have eastern kingbirds in our area. Such a beautiful bird, and yes fun to watch along the lake. Wonderful, informative post, really enjoyed your amazing photos. Thanks so much for the tips and great birding books to utilize.

  2. You are welcome, Debbie. glad you get to enjoy the Eastern Kingbirds and our bird guides!

  3. Terrific post filled with interesting information and fantastic photographs! We have handsome Eastern Kingbirds in our area. I love to observe them nabbing insects in the air. Last month I was fortunate to see my first Scissor-tailed Flycatcher ... a stunning beauty!

  4. Thank you Julie, so glad you got to see Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, they're awesome!