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western kingbird

Tyrannus verticalis

What do they look like?

Western kingbirds are fairly large compared to other related species. Adult males and females look the same and have a small black bill, dark eyes, black legs and feet, and an orange-red central crown patch that is often hidden from view. They have an ashy gray head, neck, and breasts. The spaces between their eyes and bill are dark and their cheeks are white. Their coverts are dark and their back is a contrasting olive green. Their tail is black and square with white edges. Their belly and undertail feathers are bright yellow. Juveniles look similar to adults but are generally paler. (Alsop, 2001; Sibley, 2000; Vuilleumier, 2011)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Average mass
    35 to 45 g
    oz
  • Average length
    20 to 24 cm
    in
  • Average wingspan
    38 to 41 cm
    in

Where do they live?

Western kingbirds (Tyrannus verticalis) are found as far north as southern Canada and as far south as the border of the United States and Mexico. These birds are found as far east as the Mississippi River, although they are sometimes found in parts of Wisconsin and Illinois. Their western range stops shy of the Pacific coast. Populations of these birds are also known to winter in southern Florida. (Alsop, 2001; MacKenzie and Sealy, 1981)

What kind of habitat do they need?

Western kingbirds are usually found in dry savannas, farm fields, and riparian woodlands with scattered trees and shrubs. They prefer larger, taller trees that have many perches available. Western kingbirds may also be found in urban areas, using man-made objects such as telephone poles and wires. (Alsop, 2001; Bergin, 1992; Blancher and Robertson, 1987; MacKenzie and Sealy, 1981)

How do they reproduce?

Western kingbirds are monogamous, which means males and females mate in a pair. They usually begin mating in late May to early June, although some may mate into mid-July. In southern parts of their range, they begin building their nests in early May, but some build their nests as late as the second week of July, usually as a second attempt when their first nest fails. Males perform a special courtship flight where they take off upward into the air, they flutter nearly in place, while vibrating their feathers and delivering a trilling song. (Blancher and Robertson, 1987; MacKenzie and Sealy, 1981; Murphy, 1988; Ohlendorf, 1974)

Western kingbirds nest in large trees and build cup nests at least 6 feet or more above the ground. They may also use man-made objects for nesting such as telephone poles, but when given the option, they choose to nest in cottonwood trees. More than one pair may nest in the same tree at a time. Their nests are made of grasses, twigs, and weeds lined with hair or cotton. Nests are usually found near the tree trunk on a horizontal limb. They have an average clutch size of 4, but it can vary between 3 and 6 eggs. Their eggs are oval shaped and have an average weight of 3.83 grams. Eggs are brown or black with lavender spotting. Once the young hatch, they stay in the nest another 16 to 17 days. On average, western kingbirds produce 1 to 2 broods each year. (Blancher and Robertson, 1987; MacKenzie and Sealy, 1981; Murphy, 1988; Ohlendorf, 1974)

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    Western kingbirds typically produce 1 to 2 broods per year.
  • Breeding season
    Western kingbirds start mating in early May to late June.
  • Range eggs per season
    3 to 6
  • Average eggs per season
    4
  • Average time to hatching
    18 to 19 days
  • Average fledging age
    16 to 17 days

Among western kingbirds, both males and females help build the nests. The eggs are incubated by the female for about 18 to 19 days. Once the eggs have hatched, both parents help feed the chicks. (Blancher and Robertson, 1987; MacKenzie and Sealy, 1981; Murphy, 1988; Ohlendorf, 1974)

How long do they live?

There is very little information available regarding the longevity of western kingbirds; however, they are believed to have a maximum lifespan of about 6 years. (Vuilleumier, 2011)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    6 (high) years

How do they behave?

Western kingbirds are solitary but are sometimes found in small pairs or groups, especially in the winter. They are aggressive toward potential predators such as hawks, crows, and owls and chase them away from their nesting areas. When many western kingbirds are nearby, they may group together to scare off nest predators. Likewise, in one case, a western kingbird and a scissor-tailed flycatcher were observed ganging up on a boat-tailed grackle that entered their nesting tree. Western kingbirds are migratory and leave their nesting areas in mid-August. (Blancher and Robertson, 1984; Blancher and Robertson, 1987; Hespenheide, 1964; Ohlendorf, 1974)

Home Range

There is currently no data available regarding the home range size of western kingbirds.

How do they communicate with each other?

Western kingbirds have a high, squeaky song, which sounds like "pidik pik pidik PEEKado". Their call is best described as a rapid and rising shrill, described as “widik pik widi pik pik”. They also have a sharp, hard “kit” call. In addition, these birds perform non-vocal behaviors when they sense a threat including fluffing their crown feathers, fluttering or flicking their wings, and crouching. (Gamble and Bergin, 2012; Sibley, 2000)

What do they eat?

Western kingbirds mostly eat flying insects including bees, robber flies, winged ants, and grasshoppers. These birds also eat fruits from buckthorn or sumac, seeds from poison ivy, and spiders. They forage from high or low perches and prefer flying insects less than 5 feet above ground. Western kingbirds spot prey from their perch and fly to catch it, usually returning to same perch afterward. They hover above their target and dip into the foliage or onto the ground to catch the prey. In one instance, they changed their behavior to feed on an abundance of tiger beetles on a pondside beach. (Blancher and Robertson, 1984; Blancher and Robertson, 1987; Ohlendorf, 1974; Schultz, 1983)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • Plant Foods
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Predation causes up to 50% of nest losses. Cooper's hawks and Chihuahuan ravens are major nest predators. In response, western kingbirds are more aggressive toward these species than others. Falcons and owls have also been mentioned as nest predators. Open riparian nest sites are more likely to be visited by predators than desert or forested riparian nests. There is no record of adult birds being preyed upon. (Blancher and Robertson, 1984; Blancher and Robertson, 1987)

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Western kingbirds may help naturally control insects, feeding largely on flies, grasshoppers, and winged ants. These birds may also carry a variety of internal and external parasites. (Blancher and Robertson, 1984; Gamble and Bergin, 2012)

Commensal or parasitic species (or larger taxonomic groups) that use this species as a host

Do they cause problems?

There are no known negative economic effects of this species.

How do they interact with us?

Western kingbirds may benefit humans by controlling insect populations. (Blancher and Robertson, 1984)

Are they endangered?

Western kingbirds are considered common and their population is stable and/or increasing. Currently, the IUCN states their population is increasing with a status of 'least concern'. (Birdlife International, 2012)

Contributors

Demetri Lafkas (author), Northern Michigan University, Alec Lindsay (editor), Northern Michigan University, Leila Siciliano Martina (editor), Animal Diversity Web Staff.

References

Alsop, F. 2001. Birds of North America: Life Histories of More Than 930 Species. New York, NY: DK.

Barry, J., L. Butler, V. Rohwer, S. Rohwer. 2009. Documenting Molt-Migration in Western Kingbird (Tyrannus verticalis) Using Two Measures of Collecting Effort. The Auk, 126/2: 260-267.

Bergin, T. 1992. Habitat Selection by the Western Kingbird in Western Nebraska: A Hierarchical Analysis. The Condor, 94/4: 903-911.

Birdlife International, 2012. "Tyrannus verticalis" (On-line). IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2012.2. Accessed April 14, 2013 at http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/22700497/0.

Blancher, P., R. Robertson. 1987. Effect of Food Supply on the Breeding Biology of Western Kingbirds. Ecology, 68/3: 723-732.

Blancher, P., R. Robertson. 1984. Resource Use by Sympatric Kingbirds. The Condor, 86/3: 305-313.

Gamble, L., T. Bergin. 2012. "Western kingbird (Tyrannus verticalis)" (On-line). The Birds of North America Online. Accessed December 18, 2013 at http://bna.birds.cornell.edu.proxy.lib.umich.edu/bna/species/227/articles/conservation.

Hespenheide, H. 1964. Competition and the Genus Tyrannus. The Wilson Bulletin, 76/3: 265-281.

Johnston, D. 1971. Niche Relationships among Some Deciduous Forest Flycatchers. The Auk, 88/4: 796-804.

MacKenzie, D., S. Sealy. 1981. Nest Site Selection in Eastern and Western Kingbirds: A Multivariate Approach. The Condor, 83/4: 310-321.

Murphy, M. 1988. Comparative Reproductive Biology of Kingbirds (Tyrannus SPP,) in Eastern Kansas. The Wilson Bulletin, 100/3: 357-376.

Ohlendorf, H. 1974. Competitive Relationships among Kingbirds (Tyrannus) in Trans-Pecos Texas. The Wilson Bulletin, 86/4: 357-373.

Schultz, T. 1983. Opportunistic Foraging of Western Kingbirds on Aggregations of Tiger Beetles. The Auk, 100/2: 496-497.

Sibley, D. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Vuilleumier, F. 2011. American Museum of Natural History: Birds of North America Western Region. New York: DK Publishing.

 
University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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Lafkas, D. 2014. "Tyrannus verticalis" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed November 22, 2017 at http://www.biokids.umich.edu/accounts/Tyrannus_verticalis/

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
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