Kingbird sightings signal start of fall migration

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern kingbird perches on a branch overlooking a pond.

From almost daily thunderstorms to earthquakes, August of 2020 is shaping up as a memorable month. In addition, there’s more evidence each day that the birds are restless and ready to begin the annual fall migration. For the first time in nearly 20 years, some Eastern kingbirds made a visit to my yard on Aug. 5. The Eastern kingbird’s not a rare bird, but except for one previous occasion, this flycatcher has studiously avoided my yard since a long-ago sighting.

Four days after I spotted the kingbirds at my home, I counted six Eastern kingbirds while visiting the historic Bell Cemetery in the Limestone Cove community of Unicoi County. The birds included both adults and young individuals, which suggests this loose group of kingbirds was traveling as a social family flock.

We’re fortunate to have many brightly colored birds make their home in the region, offering us, for a few months, a glimpse of what life might look like in the tropical rain forests of Central and South America. Some of the more colorful birds that spend time in local forests and visit our gardens and yards include scarlet tanagers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and indigo buntings.

Photon by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern kingbird uses a fence rail as a perch on the campus of East Tennessee State University.

Not every tropical migrant spending the summer, however, sports feathers of such bright hues as red, orange and blue. In fact, one large family of birds includes some downright “Plain Jane” species. The most widespread family of neotropical migrants is known as the “tyrant flycatchers,” which comprises a grouping of more than 400 species that is considered the world’s largest family of birds in the world. The Eastern kingbird is one of several members of this extensive family grouped with a cluster of birds known as “kingbirds.” Other kingbirds include the snowy-throated kingbird of Colombia, Peru and Ecuador, as well as the tropical kingbird, which is found in Central and South America but wanders on occasion into southern Arizona and the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. In the United States, the Eastern kingbird has a counterpart in the western half of the nation. That bird, not surprisingly, is known as the western kingbird. Other kingbirds include white-throated kingbird, Couch’s kingbird, Cassin’s kingbird and thick-billed kingbird.

What’s a king without a crown? The Eastern kingbird does possess a crown patch of red feathers, but this colorful spot on an otherwise black and white bird is rarely in a position to be easily observed. I’ve only observed the crown on a handful of occasions while birding in the field. The kingbird uses the red patch of feathers, though, as a visible expression of aggression when dealing with other birds.

The tyrant flycatchers have earned this descriptive moniker because of the behavior of some species that instills a fearlessness in them all out of proportion to their size. The Eastern kingbird is famous for attacking much larger birds, such as American crows, common ravens and even red-tailed hawks that venture too close to their nests. I’ve observed many an Eastern kingbird appear to actually land on the back of a hawk, probably to pluck at the larger bird’s feathers as it “persuades” its larger opponent to move outside of its claimed territory.

Our region is home to one flycatcher species — the Eastern phoebe — that is a year-round resident. All the other flycatchers known in the region, including the kingbird, are temporary residents, migrating to the region each spring and departing again in the fall for a winter stay in the American tropics. Other migratory flycatchers include Eastern wood-pewee, Acadian flycatcher, alder flycatcher, willow flycatcher and least flycatcher. Most of these birds have plumages in very basic patterns and hues of black, white and brown.

By and large, the flycatchers are not going to gain attention thanks to colorful feathers or beautiful songs. Of course, there’s always an exception to the rule. The vermilion flycatcher, at least the male, is a bright red bird with contrasting brown feathers in its plumage. It is named for vermilion, a bright, scarlet-red pigment. Its range in the southwestern United States, unfortunately, does not bring it close to East Tennessee, western North Carolina, or southwestern Virginia.

Kingbirds prefer open habitats, such as fields and pastures. While raising their young during the hot summer months, Eastern kingbirds feed mostly on insects. On its wintering territory in the tropics, however, kingbirds feed mostly on fruit.

The Eastern kingbird doesn’t have a melodic song, but it does have a call that sound like an electric zap. So, like the Eastern phoebe’s strident “fee-bee” notes and the great crested flycatcher’s loud “weep” calls, the kingbird is not among the more melodic songbirds. Regardless, we owe all flycatchers a debt. Because of their fondness for insects, they do us a great service helping to keeping down the numbers of some of the more pesky bugs.

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