Western Kingbird

Bird of the Month: Western Kingbird

By Andrew McCormick

PC: Mick Thompson (Western Kingbird)

PC: Mick Thompson (Western Kingbird)

Scientific Name: Tyrannus verticalis

Length 8.75 in

Wingspan 15.5 in

Weight 1.4 oz

AOU Band code WEKI

Darting from its perch on the wire a Western Kingbird gives chase to a bee that has just entered its territory.  It takes a few yards for the kingbird to catch up to the bee but with a click of its bill the bird has secured its lunch and returns to its perch. Later, a Red-tailed Hawk makes an appearance and as it approaches the kingbird’s nest the male raises its crest revealing the hidden red feathers and flies to confront the hawk, mobbing it until it leaves the bird’s territory. The Western Kingbird is the ruler of its province.

The Western Kingbird is the widest ranging of the western yellow-bellied kingbirds and the only one which nests in Washington. It prefers semi-open country where it perches on a branch, shrub, wire, or fence post and sallies out to chase and capture flying insects. It is seen most frequently in eastern Washington.

The Western Kingbird has a light gray head and back with dark brown-black wings. In flight the back looks markedly lighter than the wings. The black tail is squared off at the tip and has fine white outer tail feathers. Its bill is small and black. It has a narrow black mask through the eyes and a conspicuous white cheek patch. The chest is pearly gray and the belly is yellow.

There are three other look-alike, yellow-bellied kingbirds with which it shares the genus Tyrannus, from the Greek turannos, for absolute ruler, king or tyrant (Holloway). The Tropical Kingbird (T. melancholicus) is rare to casual in Washington around Puget Sound during fall and winter (Alderfer). The Tropical has a forked tail with no white on it and an olive back which looks dark in flight. Its white throat blends into an olive-yellow chest to a yellow belly. Cassin’s (T. vociferens), and Couch’s (T. couchii) Kingbirds are found in the southwestern United States. The Western Kingbird has a mostly-hidden red crown patch for which it has been given the species name verticalis, from the Latin vertex (Holloway). 

The Western Kingbird is an acrobatic flyer and has an elaborate mating flight which includes a seemingly out-of-control spinning and twisting downward flight. It will nest in trees and on human-made structures such as utility poles and building ledges. Both sexes build a cup-style nest of grass and twigs lined with feathers and plant down. Usually 3-5 white eggs blotched with lavender and black are deposited. The female incubates them for 18 days. Both parents feed the young which leave the nest in a little over two weeks (Kaufman). The birds arrive in Washington in late April to early May and in late August they begin fall migration in small flocks to the Pacific coast of Mexico and Central America. 
It has adapted well to human presence. Introduction of shade trees and construction of power lines and fences have aided the Western Kingbird. As a result it is one of the few Neotropical migrants whose population is increasing (Gamble & Bergin).