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Published on: Jun. 17, 2011

Western Kingbird

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Western Kingbird

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Kingbird's Crown

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Kingbird Feeding Young

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Western Kingbirds at a Royals Game

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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?

Regal Understatement

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 nesting range. In the northern Great Plains, for example, the planting of trees in small towns and farmsteads on the prairie allowed the western kingbird to expand eastward. In other areas in the southeastern part of its breeding range, the clearing of forested land along with the proliferation of utility poles and wires made things more suitable for the birds.

Both kingbird species are highly territorial and will aggressively defend their nesting areas against other birds, particularly predatory ones. Kingbirds, along with red-winged blackbirds, are the species most commonly seen “divebombing” much larger birds such as red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures and crows.

The Birds of Summer

The western kingbird is often found in closer proximity to humans than eastern kingbirds. It can sometimes be found nesting in the parking lot islands of large shopping centers, hospitals, airports or other places with large expanses of parking lot interspersed with landscaping trees. However, birders are well aware of the bird’s affinity for two distinctly human environments—power substations and baseball fields. Both settings provide ample secure structures to place a nest, but it is baseball—particularly night baseball—that these birds especially seem to enjoy. In late spring and summer the powerful stadium lights attract countless flying insects, a bounty of easy pickings for birds rearing young. While baseball fans are watching the center fielder catch a fly, western kingbirds are often overhead doing the same thing.

At Kauffman Stadium, the kingbirds begin nesting near the end of April. During this time they are noisy and gregarious as males establish and defend territories and attract mates. Much of this activity focuses around the rows of small ash trees that border the parking lots outside the stadium. In 2010, at least three kingbird nests were found in these trees and others probably nested in less visible locations including the stadium light towers. If you are especially observant and fortunate, you may witness dramatic aerial courtship and territorial displays by the male birds. In these performances, birds fly almost straight up, then plunge downward with sudden stalling maneuvers combined with fluttering and vibrating of wings and feathers.

Soon the birds begin making appearances inside the stadium during games. They are even more conspicuous after their young hatch. With many hungry mouths to feed, the birds take advantage of the insects drawn to the stadium lights. Studies have shown that when insects are abundant, kingbirds produce more eggs and nestlings are fed more frequently and grow faster. This makes Kauffman Stadium valuable avian real estate for a flycatcher.

A Game For All Species

Attending games at Kauffman Stadium through the years, I always enjoyed watching a variety of birds. Kingbirds are by no means the only birds to take advantage of the plentiful supply of flying insects. Chimney swifts, kestrels (small falcons), nighthawks and several species of swallows are all entertaining and graceful insect hunters that frequent the ballpark. But for more than a decade, it was the western kingbird that I found particularly interesting. While most of the other “baseball birds” tend to navigate the airspace of the nosebleed seats, the kingbirds like to get right down where the action is.

Perhaps the most favored perching and hunting sites at Kauffman Stadium are the two cables that hold up the screen behind home plate. From here, the birds launch their aerial assaults on any hapless insect that enters their airspace. It seems the birds seldom miss, even when the quarry’s flight is as erratic and evasive as a moth. At times the kingbird’s pursuits actually take them onto the infield. On several occasions, I have even seen the home plate umpire step out to call time as a kingbird dove after an insect in front of a batter just as a pitch was about to be delivered. There are some risks involved with such foraging, but so far no kingbird has ever met up with a thrown or batted ball during a game.

The Off-Season

As a biologist, I find myself marveling at the ways this bird has adapted to my favorite game. Their foraging habits and schedule must be quite different when the team is on the road. At some level, I imagine they must be glad when the Royals begin a homestand and they see the return of the crowds—knowing it also means the return of the lights and the insect feast they bring. I wonder how this schedule of attending night games affects the birds’ internal clock? Flycatchers are not nocturnal birds. If play on the field runs late, kingbirds can still be seen hawking insects well after dark. How do they adjust to this schedule? Are they tired the next day, as perhaps many of the fans are after getting home late and getting up for work the next day? Do they sleep in?

The kingbird’s baseball season doesn’t last as long as the Royals. By early August, young kingbirds are raised and the birds are no longer visible at the stadium. Adults head south first, followed a bit later by the juveniles. I often ponder the wildly contrasting life these “birds of summer” must lead in the off-season. Like many young major leaguers who play winter ball in Mexico, the Caribbean, or Central and South America, western kingbirds spend their winters in warmer climates. After three months of crowds, noise and bright lights, the birds begin the southward journey to spend the winter somewhere from the Pacific side of southern Mexico southward to Costa Rica.

They play winter baseball in those countries, and I like to think that the Kauffman Stadium birds are down there hanging around a ball field somewhere in Central America, taking in a game. Since they are no longer raising young or defending a territory and have only their own mouths to feed, life is slower-paced. Do they miss the action of summer up north? Did they grow accustomed to fireworks, “Let’s Go Royals” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”?

Now if only while they were down there during the winter months they could scout out a good shortstop prospect…

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