Bird Lore: Western Kingbird

Kingbirds are medium-sized flycatchers of semi-open and open country. The Western Kingbird breeds in Eastern Washington but a few always appear in Western Washington in spring. There have been a couple of sightings of this flycatcher around the Edmonds Marsh over the years. In recent years, a pair actually nested for several seasons on a utility pole near Lake Tye in Monroe.

The Western Kingbird is an insectivore, feeding mainly on wasps, bees, beetles and grasshoppers. It will also forage on flies, true bugs, caterpillars and moths. It eats small numbers of berries and fruits. It forages by watching from a perch and then flying out to snap up insects in its bill. It will catch insects in mid-air but will also hover and then drop to the ground to catch them.

The Western Kingbird can be found in open country, farms, along roadsides and in towns. It avoids true desert although it will inhabit semi-desert scrub. It looks for trees for its nest but will also nest on artificial structures. The male defends his territory by singing an extended dawn song, starting at the first hint of daylight. In courtship, he performs a flight display that includes rapidly flying up and down in vertical zigzags, while giving rapid sputtering calls.

The nest site is variable but it is usually in the vertical fork or on a horizontal limb of a tree. The Western Kingbird will also build its nest on a utility pole, on a building ledge or tower, in an empty shed, and even on a cliff ledge. It has been known to use the abandoned nest of another bird. The nest is a cup of grass, plant fibers, weeds and twigs. It is lined with finer materials such as feathers and plant down. The female incubates her three to five eggs for about two and a half weeks. Both adults feed the nestlings. The young leave the nest about 16-17 days after hatching.

Most species of kingbirds have a hidden patch of colorful feathers on top of the head. During aggressive encounters with other species of birds, a kingbird may raise this crown, adding to its “kingly” aura. The oldest Western Kingbird of record was a male, at least six years and 11 months of age when found in South Dakota. There are several collective nouns for the various kingbird species, including coronation, court, and tyranny. Tyranny comes from the genus Tyrannus, the genus to which all kingbirds belong.

Of the seven species of kingbirds that breed in the U.S., the Western Kingbird is largely a breeder of the western states. Most of the population winters from southern Mexico to Central America. A small population winters in southern Florida. The species often migrates in small flocks.

The Western Kingbird is common and its population remained stable between 1966 and 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. The breeding population is estimated at 22 million with 91 percent spending part of the year in the U.S., 49 percent in Mexico, and 5 percent breeding in Canada. The Western Kingbird seems to benefit from some human activities and has expanded its range since the late 1800s. The species spread eastward across the prairies as people planted trees. It also expanded across Texas as people cleared forests and installed utility poles and wires. The Western Kingbird is vulnerable to pesticides since it nests near cultivated crops and hunts for insects in farm fields.

This is the extended dawn song of a Western Kingbird:

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

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