The Nature Writers of Texas

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Sunday, September 03, 2006

Eastern Kingbirds Pass Through in Flocks
by Ro Wauer

Among my favorite Neotropical migrants this time of year is the black-and-white Eastern kingbird. It looks a little a scissor-tailed flycatcher but lacks the long tail and pinkish sides. And Eastern kingbirds are just as stately as the scissor-tails, but with a very different dress. They possess all-white underparts, black face and cap, dark back and wings, and a black tail tipped with white. They also possess a narrow orange-red crown patch that is seldom visible. And they have a very distinct song, a stuttering "kip-kip-kipper-kipper; dzee-dzee-dzee." Eastern kingbirds nest throughout much of our area in small numbers. They seem to prefer moist areas, often nesting in low trees along the water's edge. For instance, I have found nesting birds pairs along FM 1289 between Port O'Connor and Port Lavaca.

But what makes this bird rather special is its varied behavior at different times of the year. They arrive along the central Gulf Coast as early as late March, although they cannot be expected in numbers until mid-April. These northbound migrants often occur in flocks of several dozen to 100 or more. Most pass through our area, continuing northward to their more northern nesting grounds that extend from Washington State eastward through central Canada into the Maritime Provinces and south to central Texas.

When nesting, they occur in solitary pairs and vigorously defend their nesting territory against all other kingbirds and much larger birds as well. They become extremely aggressive, even driving off crows and passing hawks, landing on their backs and giving them a peck or two. They also have marvelous displays in midair. Their courtship flights consist of flying up and down, zigzagging, doing backward somersaults and other aerial robotics, all with quivering wings and a widely spread tail. They have even learned to reject the cowbird eggs that cowbirds lay in the nests of many birds the same size as kingbirds. There are very few records of cowbird parasitism for Eastern kingbirds.

Like all flycatchers, their principal diet during their nesting season is insects. Most are captured in flight, usually by the kingbird flying up or out from a lookout perch; they also will hover over the ground, searching for insects, and then pounce on unsuspecting prey. But just as soon as their nesting season terminates, they revert to their winter pattern of flocking with other Eastern kingbirds. And they also begin to feed on fruit that is usually abundant in late summer and fall.

By early September, we find most Eastern kingbirds in flocks, flying southward toward their wintering grounds. They will often rest of wires along the highways or bare treetops at the edge of our pastures. But they gradually drift southward, so that by early October, they have pretty well left our area, although occasional flocks can be found to mid-October. On their wintering grounds in South America, they gather in even larger flocks, sometimes in the hundreds. And unlike their feeding patterns in the United States, they spend much of their time foraging for berries in the tropical forests.

There is little question about the behavioral diversity of this fascinating flycatcher. Plus, it is one more of our birds that we share with our neighbors to the south.

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