A colorful and conspicuous flycatcher, the western kingbird is the most common and familiar species of all the kingbirds in western North America. Learning about this widespread species can help birders distinguish between many very similar kingbirds.
- Bill: Small and may appear thick and stubby, black, very slight hook at the tip
- Size: 8.75 inches long with 15.5-inch wingspan, slightly peaked crown, square tail, small head
- Colors: Gray, olive green, brown, black, white, yellow, orange
- Markings: Genders are similar with an ashy gray head that shows slightly darker gray lores, with a small patch of the darker color extending to the auriculars. A very small orange patch on the crown is usually hidden and very difficult to see. The chin, throat and chest are gray, showing slightly paler on the throat. The abdomen is bright yellow and the undertail coverts are white or pale yellow. The back is gray with a slight olive green tinge that may be hard to see. Wings are grayish brown with white edging on the secondary feathers, and in flight a yellow wash shows beneath the wings. The tail is black with contrasting white outer tail feathers, and the legs and feet are black. Juvenile western kingbirds look similar to adults but are overall paler with more buff fringes on their feathers. Species is monotypic.
Insects, fruits, berries (See: Insectivorous)
Habitat and Migration:
These birds are adaptable and can be found in a variety of semiarid open habitats, including agricultural fields, scrub meadows, sparse riparian areas and along rural roadsides. During the summer breeding season, these flycatchers can be found throughout the central and western area of the United States from Oklahoma, Kansas, Minnesota and central Texas to the Pacific coast, though they are absent from the westernmost portions of Washington and Oregon. Summer western kingbirds are also found in similar areas in southern Canada and northern Mexico. In winter, these neotropical migrants migrate to Central America ranging from southern Mexico to Costa Rica, and small numbers of them overwinter in central and southern Florida.
These birds have a high "kip" note that makes up their nasal rattling song with multiple syllables. The notes change pitch throughout the song, highest in the middle of the series of notes.
Western kingbirds are adaptable birds that are typically found alone, in pairs or in small groups during the breeding season, though they are more gregarious in the winter. When defending a nesting territory they can be very aggressive, chasing away large birds such as raptors and ravens, even riding on the backs of hawks to urge them away.
These flycatchers hunt by hawking insects from open perches such as poles or wires, returning to the same perch to feed after catching each insect.
These are monogamous birds that mate after the males perform frantic darting courtship flights that include high trilling songs and wing fluttering. The cup-shaped nest is built 8-35 feet high near the trunk of a tree or in a thick fork between branches. Western kingbirds prefer grasses, weeds and twigs as nesting material, lining the nest with finer items such as hair, cotton or plant down. The eggs are oval-shaped and whitish, though heavily blotched with brown, black or lavender splotches mostly concentrated at the thicker end of the egg. Each brood contains 3-7 eggs, and 1-2 broods may be laid each year.
Attracting Western Kingbirds:
These birds may come to backyards in rural areas with abundant open habitat. Leaving fence posts, utility poles and wires intact to serve as perches will help encourage these birds to stay nearby, as will minimizing insecticide use on agricultural fields.
Because western kingbirds are adaptable and thrive in open fields, their range has been slowly expanding as agriculture expands in the appropriate habitat. These birds are not considered threatened, though some local population changes may be monitored. As neotropical migrants, the biggest threat they face is the lack of appropriate habitat in their winter range, making international cooperation for bird conservation essential to protect these birds.
- Tropical Kingbird (Tyrannus melancholicus)
- Couch's Kingbird (Tyrannus couchii)
- Cassin's Kingbird (Tyrannus vociferans)
- Thick-Billed Kingbird (Tyrannus crassirostris)
Photo – Western Kingbird © Ingrid Taylar