Adult eastern kingbirds have black on the head and dark gray on the back. The underparts are white, with a white terminal band on the tail. The voice is a burst of chattering, high, sharp kips, kitters, and tzeees. Like other flycatchers, kingbirds typically flit gracefully from an exposed perch to snap up flying insects and then immediately return to the same perch. One reason for the name “kingbird” is the reddish-orange crown on its head — but this bright patch is very hard to glimpse in the field.
Similar species: This is the only flycatcher in our area with distinctive black, dark, slate gray, and white coloration. Most of the others have warmer colors, or are quite smaller, or both.
Length: 8½ inches (tip of bill to tip of tail).
Habitat and Conservation
Common summer resident in open grassland or agricultural areas with scattered trees, plus woodlands, savannas, forest edges, and city parks, often near water. It darts from its perch to capture insects or chase away avian intruders. The name “kingbird” comes, in part, from its fearless physical attacks of other birds that venture into its territory — kingbirds have been known to chase away crows and even hawks, screaming, sometimes landing on them in flight, and pecking fiercely on their backs.
Visual, aerial hunters, kingbirds sally from exposed perches on trees, phone wires, or fences to snatch relatively large flying insects, such as wasps, beetles, grasshoppers, true bugs, and robber flies. Bristly feathers by the bill funnel flying insects to the mouth. The kingbird returns to its perch, bangs the insect on the branch, then swallows it. A small amount of berries and other fruit are eaten in summer, but in winter (in South America), kingbirds switch to a diet of mostly fruit.
Common summer resident. Populations have decreased about 40 percent since the 1960s, with a combination of possible causes, including habitat loss here in North America (where they breed), as urban areas expand and agricultural areas revert to forest; insecticides, which can reduce available prey or be toxic to the kingbirds eating the poisoned prey; and collisions with cars (roads are open areas that are often attractive to kingbirds for hunting and nesting).
Eastern kingbirds arrive in Missouri the second half of April. Large, thick-walled, sturdy cup nests are built of twigs, grass, and other materials, including human trash. Nests are built in open areas with scattered trees and shrubs, often near water. A clutch comprises 2–5 eggs, which are incubated 14–17 days. The young fledge 16–17 days after hatching. There is 1 brood a year. This species migrates in large flocks in mid-August to early September to spend winters in South America.
This bird’s spirited territorial defense, tidy, professional-looking plumage, and distinctive, fluttery flight have long captured the attention and admiration of people. An antique name for this bird was “bee-martin,” from the erroneous assumption that it preyed to an injurious extent on honeybees.
Kingbirds, as flycatchers, serve as a natural check on insect populations, helping control the numbers of a variety of insects. In their Amazonian wintering grounds, eastern kingbirds travel in flocks, eating fruits and perhaps spreading the seeds of tropical açaí or camu camu berries!