Eastern kingbirds are relatively small flycatchers, from 19.5 to 23 cm long. Males and females are similar, although males are slightly larger. They are striking birds, with rich, black feathers on their backs and white chins, breasts, and bellies. Kingbirds have a crest of feathers on their head, which males tend to hold up more than females. Eastern kingbirds also have a small red patch of feathers on the crest. They have a distinctive white edge at the end of the tail. The bill, claws, and legs are black.
Eastern kingbirds breed throughout most of eastern North America, from the Gulf of Mexico north to central Canada, as far east at the Atlantic ocean and as far west as the Rocky Mountains and eastern Washington and Oregon. They spend the winter in South America, mainly in the western Amazon basin.
Eastern kingbirds are found in open, savanna-like habitats, often near water. They occur in fields and grasslands with scattered tall trees for nesting and perching, including parks, forests along rivers, forest openings, golf courses, and suburban and urban areas. In winter they are found in forest-edges, forests along rivers, and near wetlands.
Eastern kingbirds form mated pairs that stay together for a breeding season. Males attract females by flying in short zig-zags while also calling.
Eastern kingbirds breed from April to June. Females build nests of twigs, bark, and roots lined with softer material. Nests are built high in trees in open habitats. Females lay 2 to 5 cream colored eggs with reddish spots. Incubation is for 14 to 17 days and young can fly 16 to 17 days after hatching. Eastern kingbirds can breed in their first year after hatching.
Young are naked and helpless at hatching. Only females incubate the eggs and keep the young warm. Males and females feed nestlings, but females feed more than males. Young are fed insects as much as possible, but parents will feed them fruit as well. They remove stingers from bees and wasps before feeding them to the young. Parents continue to feed and protect their young up to 5 weeks after they can fly, at 7 to 8 weeks old. Young begin to feed themselves at about 4 weeks old.
It is not known how long eastern kingbirds live. Most young die from being preyed on in their first year.
Eastern kingbirds do not usually walk or hop, instead they fly from place to place. They are fast and agile flyers. They are active during the day and aggressively defend territories during the breeding season. They will not tolerate other birds nearby. During migration and winter, however, they are very social, forming large flocks of up to several thousand birds to migrate. Migrating flocks may stop over for several days in areas with abundant food.
Eastern kingbirds defend their nesting territories, the sizes of home ranges are not known.
Eastern kingbirds use a variety of calls to communicate, especially during the breeding season. Males sing a complex song in the early morning. Calls are harsh and buzzing "zeers." Males call more often than females. Eastern kingbirds snap their bills at threats as well and make whirring sounds with their wings. During mating males perform displays in flight to attract females.
Eastern kingbirds eat insects during the breeding season and both insects and fruit in winter. Insects make up 85% of the diet from May to September, including bees and wasps, beetles, grasshoppers, bugs, and flies. Insect prey is mainly taken by hawking from a perch. They dart out from perches to capture insects in their air. They will also take insects from the water or ground by hovering. Small insects are eaten immediately, larger insects are taken back to the perch and smashed until they can be eaten. Eastern kingbirds drink water, instead they get enough moisture from insects and prey.
Most predators take eggs and nestlings. Eastern kingbird adults are sometimes taken by birds of prey, such as American kestrels. Eastern kingbirds are aggressive and will energetically attack threats, such as large hawks, crows, blue jays, squirrels, and snakes, whenever they are nearby. They will dive at a threat with their crest raised, exposing the red crown feathers, and with the mouth wide open, exposing their bright red mouth lining. They repeatedly attack the threat until they retreat. Eggs and nestlings are preyed on by crows, blue jays, tree squirrels and red squirrels, and tree-climbing snakes.
Eastern kingbirds are important predators of insects during the breeding season. They eat fruits and may disperse seeds as well. They may nest near Swainson's hawks or ferruginous hawks, which prey on their nest predators, such as crows and blue jays. Hatchlings are parasitized by mites. Brown-headed cowbirds lay their eggs in eastern kingbird nests sometimes.
Eastern kingbirds don't harm humans, although they may harass humans they see as threats near nests.
Eastern kingbird may help to control insect pest populations in some areas.
Eastern kingbirds are widespread and populations are large, they are not considered threatened. They are protected by the U.S. Migratory Bird Act.
Tanya Dewey (author), Animal Diversity Web.
Murphy, M. 1996. Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus). The Birds of North America Online, 253: 1-20. Accessed April 17, 2009 at http://bna.birds.cornell.edu.proxy.lib.umich.edu/bna/species/253.