Eastern kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus)

Synonyms: Lanius tyrannus
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderPasseriformes
FamilyTyrannidae
GenusTyrannus (1)
SizeLength: 19 - 23 cm (2) (3)
Wingspan: 33 - 38 cm (2)
Weight33 - 55 g (2)
Top facts

The eastern kingbird is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

A rather conspicuous species (4), the eastern kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) is a large, stocky flycatcher with dark grey (2) to blackish-grey upperparts (3) and a prominent white tip to the squared tail (2) (3) (4). This species belongs to the genus Tyrannus, which means ‘tyrant’ or ‘despot’ and is thought to refer to the eastern kingbird’s aggressive tendencies towards other species and even members of its own kind (2).

This species has white underparts (2) (3), although there may be a tinge of pale grey across the upper breast and chest (3). The wings are blackish-brown and patterned with two rather faint wing bars (3), while the large head is darker than the wings and back (2) and has a slightly crested appearance (2) (3). The eastern kingbird has a crown of yellow, orange or reddish feathers, for which it is presumably named, although these feathers are typically concealed (2) (3). This crown patch may be raised to frighten off potential predators (2).

Female eastern kingbirds are similar in appearance to the males, although the females tend to be slightly smaller with a smaller crown patch. Juveniles of this species look much like the adults, but are much duller, paler, and have more brownish-grey feathers on the upperparts. In addition, juvenile eastern kingbirds do not have a crown patch, and typically lack the white tail band seen in the adults (3).

The distinctive metallic call of the eastern kingbird has been described as sounding like an electric spark or zap (2), and a high-pitched, scratchy ‘keer’ is also sometimes produced (3). Male eastern kingbirds tend to vocalise more than females (3), singing complex songs from perches before dawn (2). This song lasts about 1.5 seconds, and consists of high, sputtering notes followed by a repeated, buzzy ‘zeer’ (2). Interestingly, the eastern kingbird is almost completely silent when migrating and in wintering areas (3).

The eastern kingbird has the most extensive breeding range of all North American flycatchers (2) (5), occurring throughout much of Canada and the United States (2) (3) (5) (6). In fact, it is only really absent from Alaska, northern Canada and parts of the south-western United States (3). This species breeds along the Atlantic coast down to Florida and the Gulf coast, and as far west as Oregon and Washington (5).

On migration, the eastern kingbird stops in Central America (2) before continuing to its wintering grounds in South America (2) (3) (4) (5). The wintering grounds of this species are mostly located in western Amazonia (2) (5) and throughout much of the Andes (3), including parts of Argentina and Chile (3) (5). The eastern kingbird occasionally winters in Venezuela (3) (5), Guyana and eastern Brazil (5), and there are vagrant populations in Greenland, Dominica, Jamaica and South Georgia (6).

Within its breeding range, the eastern kingbird tends to favour open habitats (2) (4) (5) such as fields, pastures, grasslands and wetlands (2) (4), as well as the edges of forests (2) (5). The eastern kingbird shows a preference for areas with scattered shrubs and trees (2) (4) (5), and may also breed in newly burned forest, on golf courses and in urban environments (2) (5). This species appears to be drawn to water (2) (3), often nesting in trees that overhang water bodies including rivers and lakes (2).

During migration, the eastern kingbird may be found in a wide variety of habitats (2) (3), including scrub, dunes and pine forests (3). This species winters in the humid forests of South America (2) (3), although usually only along the edges of such habitats near rivers and lakes (2) (5) and never within the forest interior (3) (5). In its wintering range, the eastern kingbird is typically found below elevations of 500 metres (4), but has been known to occur at elevations of around 3,700 metres in Ecuador (3).

A migratory species, the eastern kingbird heads south for the winter, typically in late July or August (2) (5), with migratory flocks ranging in size from small groups of 5 to 12 birds to thousands of individuals (3). Interestingly, flocks tend to be larger during the autumn migration than during the northwards migration in spring, and social and breeding behaviours are also known to differ between winter and summer. The eastern kingbird returns to its northern breeding grounds in spring, and typically arrives in North America by early to mid-April, although the first birds sometimes arrive as early as March (5).

Aerial courtship has been observed in the eastern kingbird, with the male and female birds often greeting one another with a wing-flutter display (3). The female eastern kingbird is thought to select the nest site (2), and constructs the nest over a period of one or two weeks (2) (3) while the male keeps a look out for predators and competitors (2). Eastern kingbird pairs maintain a breeding territory throughout the summer, which is often used year after year. Males in particular can become very aggressive during territorial disputes, fighting in mid-air with other birds, often interlocking feet with its opponent while doing so. Fighting birds also pull out each other’s feathers. Similar aggression is shown towards large nest predators such as crows (Corvus species) and blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) (2).

Eastern kingbird nests are constructed high up in the trees (4), and consist of a large, sturdy, open cup (3) built using bark strips, small twigs, dry weed stems and coarse roots (2) (3). The interior of the nest is typically softer, with components including willow catkins (Salix species), cottonwood fluff (Populus species), and cattail down (Typhus species) (2) (3) as well as horse hair (2).

The female eastern kingbird lays eggs between late April and August, with the timing varying depending on the location and individual (3). The eggs of this species are typically oval but are variable in shape, and are generally pale and smooth with an irregular ring of conspicuous reddish spots (2). The size of the clutch varies geographically (5), although typically three to five eggs are laid (2) (4), and usually only one brood is produced per season (2) (5). Incubation is carried out by the female alone (3), and lasts between 14 and 17 days (2) (3). The eastern kingbird chicks are fed by both adults (3) throughout the nestling period, which is typically about 16 or 17 days (2) (3), and for 3 to 4 weeks after fledging (3).

During the breeding season, the eastern kingbird feeds mostly on flying insects (2) (5) such as wasps, grasshoppers, flies and locusts (2), although it may also supplement its diet with fruit (2) (3) (5) including mulberries, blackberries and elderberries (2). Small vertebrates, including frogs, are occasionally taken (2) (3), and these are typically beaten against a perch before being swallowed whole (2). Large insects are also treated in this manner, whereas smaller insects are swallowed as soon as they are captured (2) (5). The eastern kingbird is a sit-and-wait predator (2) which captures most of its prey in flight by sallying from a perch (3) (4) (5). However, it occasionally takes prey from vegetation and the ground, as well as from water (2) (3) (5).

The eastern kingbird eats a lot more fruit during the autumn migration (2) (5), and on the wintering grounds fruit tends to make up the bulk of this species’ diet (2). Fruiting trees often attract large groups of up to thousands of birds (3). Interestingly, the eastern kingbird has rarely been observed drinking, and it is thought to obtain the moisture it requires from the insects and fruit upon which it feeds (2).

The eastern kingbird is known to live for up to ten years or more (2).

The eastern kingbird has an extremely large range and a large population size (6), and is not currently considered to be globally threatened (2). However, the population appears to be decreasing (2) (6). It is thought that declines in the eastern kingbird could be the result of habitat loss and degradation, pesticide use, and collisions with moving vehicles (2) (3).

There are currently no known conservation measures in place specifically for the eastern kingbird.

Find out more about the eastern kingbird:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (February, 2014)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. All About Birds - Eastern kingbird (February, 2014)
    http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Kingbird/id
  3. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Christie, D.A. (2004) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 9: Cotingas to Pipits and Wagtails. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. Available at:
    http://www.hbw.com/
  4. Palmer-Ball, B.L. (1996) The Kentucky Breeding Bird Atlas. University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky.
  5. Murphy, M.T. (1996) Eastern kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
    http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/253/articles/introduction
  6. BirdLife International - Eastern kingbird (February, 2014)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=4415