The giant kingbird (Tyrannus cubensis) belongs to the family Tyrannidae, the tyrant flycatchers. The tyrants owe their name to the notoriously aggressive behaviour of some species within the family, a trait which is particularly true of the kingbirds (3).
A fairly large species of flycatcher, the giant kingbird has a large, flat-looking head that is black on the crown and back of the neck, with a circular orange patch on top of the head which is generally concealed by the darker feathers (2)(4). The upperparts are mostly dark and the wings are greyish, with prominent narrow whitish or greyish-white margins on the wing coverts and flight feathers. The tail is slightly notched and darker than the back, with pale tips to some of the feathers. The giant kingbird is entirely white on the underparts, but may sometimes have a pale greyish wash to the feathers across the upper breast. The legs and the stout, heavy-set bill are blackish. The juvenile is similar in appearance to the adult, but lacks the orange patch on the head (2).
This species’ call is a loud, far-reaching, rolling “tooe-tooe-tooee-tooee-toee” chatter (2)(4). The giant kingbird also utters four distinct syllables and an unusual sounding duet, when the male usually begins a song, with the female joining in for the final few notes (2).
The giant kingbird feeds primarily on insects, which it catches using a hunting behaviour called ‘aerial hawking’. The bird sits in a crouched position on an exposed perch, usually in a tall tree, and will sally out to catch flying insects before returning back to the same perch. To make prey easier to swallow, the giant kingbird will often re-orientate its prey by tossing it back up in the air after it has been caught. The giant kingbird may also prey on lizards and the fledglings of other birds, whilst fruits are known to form a significant part of its diet during the dry season (2)(5)(6).
Generally monogamous, the giant kingbird will form pair bonds, which last for life, during the breeding season (3)(5). Breeding occurs between March and June, with a clutch of two or three eggs usually produced in May. The giant kingbird builds an unlined, cup-shaped nest out of roots, dry grasses and small twigs, which is normally placed on a horizontal branch, high up in a large tree (2)(4)(5)(6). The eggs are incubated by the female, but both adults contribute to feeding the young (3). A highly territorial species, the giant kingbird aggressively defends a large area around the nest site against intruders (3)(5).
The giant kingbird is native to Cuba and the Isle of Pines (2)(4)(5)(6). This species was formerly found in the southern Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands, but recent surveys have failed to find this species and it is presumed locally extinct (1)(5)(6).
Generally, the giant kingbird inhabits tall lowland forests, especially pine forests, as well as the wooded borders of rivers and swamps (2)(4)(5)(6). It is also frequently recorded in semi-open woodland, riparian forest, and open forest with tall trees in montane areas (5)(6). The giant kingbird had also been known to occur in low elevation cloud forest(2)(5).
While the giant kingbird occurs in naturally low densities, it is becoming increasingly rare throughout Cuba. The reasons for the decline of this species are currently unclear, but it is likely that the major threats are from habitat loss due to logging and the conversion of existing habitat for agriculture (2)(5)(6).
A project to discover more about the breeding ecology of the giant kingbird is currently being carried out in the Sierra de Najasa region of Cuba, while surveys are also underway to define the species’ precise distribution, especially around Moa and in Pinar del Río province.
Recommendations for conserving this species include protecting the giant kingbirds remaining habitat wherever it still survives (6).
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