It is late February somewhere south of the U.S. border. Perhaps some kingbirds are sitting on a fence by a pasture in southern Mexico. Others may be near a forest clearing in Honduras. Wherever they are, they are beginning to feel restless. Soon the birds will undertake a long journey northward with many stopovers and perils that will end at a very specific place in Kansas City, Mo. There is some urgency to the birds’ journey, because spring training is underway, pitchers and catchers have reported, and by the time they arrive, the new baseball season will already be several weeks old.
OK, maybe songbirds don’t follow the sports calendar, but in Kansas City many generations of western kingbirds are inextricably linked to a major league baseball team and its stadium. Their life history is intertwined with the game of baseball. And is it not appropriate that a bird called king chooses to raise its young at the home of the Kansas City Royals?
The western kingbird is a flycatcher, kin to birds like the eastern phoebe and the more glamorous scissor-tailed flycatcher. The name “kingbird” is derived from a small bright-orange patch of feathers atop the bird’s head. This “crown,” however, is seldom visible to an observer, and is only flashed on occasion, often in a display of aggression. Although not dazzling in appearance, the western kingbird is a handsome bird with yellow breast, olive-gray back and a black tail bordered by contrasting white edges. A dark line extending through the eye gives the bird somewhat of a masked appearance.
Two species of kingbird are found in Missouri, the very common eastern kingbird with a statewide distribution, and its less common western cousin. Although western kingbirds can be found in southeastern Missouri and St. Louis where a different baseball bird resides, they are most common on the western side of the state. Both kingbird species are birds of semi-open country, roadsides, fields and agricultural land wherever there are enough scattered trees to provide hunting perches and nesting sites.
Make Way for the King
Western kingbird populations are secure, unlike many other migrant songbirds, which are facing declining populations and are species of conservation concern. The bird even seems to be increasing its range. In a strange-sounding twist, this species has benefited historically both from the planting of trees and the elimination of trees in other parts of its