With the welcome appearance of the last wave of spring migrants, this week turned a crucial seasonal corner. By the time the vireos, warblers, flycatchers, and tanagers hit the northern scene you know that spring is getting long in the tooth. The trees are nearly all leafed out (except for those Johnny-come-lately walnuts, of course) and the first bloodthirsty mosquitoes are venturing onto human flesh. Spring is no longer “new.” Within the next few weeks, our bird population will settle down to “normal” and the rest of the summer flora and fauna can sidle on in.
The Eastern Kingbirds are among this late spring movement. With their arrival, our local fence posts and dead tree limbs are now re-adorned with their familiar gray and white forms. Both male and female birds possess distinctively cone-shaped heads and white-tipped tail feathers. Members of the tyrant flycatcher clan, Kingbirds re-enter their old territories with the confidence of returning royalty. It would be tempting to say that they are “back home” but the truth is far more interesting. Kingbirds, like their fellow May migrants, are actually tropical birds – they are visitors here, not residents.
“Our” kingbirds only spend 3 or 4 months here in the North Country and spend the balance of their year – some 8 months – in the tropics of Central and Northern South America. So, you see, they are not really “ours.” Even though they spend only a small part of their year here, however, their brief stay is an important one. Faced with tremendous competition for food resources and a whole armada of predators in the tropical forests, Kingbirds travel north to raise a family where insects are abundant and there is relative freedom from predators. Life in the tropics is way too complicated sometimes.
If you judge them by their late spring/summer behavior, you’d think that Kingbirds are non-social carnivorous beasts. Individual Kingbirds rule their patch of field or forest edge as solo monarchs. The only time you’ll see more than one of these birds in the same vicinity is when they pair up to nest and raise young. They are exclusively insect eaters when in our ‘hood – dashing out and back from a set perch to snap up dragonflies, butterflies, and other flying edibles.
Back in their true tropical home, you’d hardly recognize them. Their behavior makes a complete 180 and they become social fruit eaters. These sassy birds revert to flock behavior and gather together in small groups consisting of up to 100. They descend upon the fleshy fruits offered by forest giants such as the giant Matchwood tree which towers over the canopy. In fact, they act more like Cedar Waxwings than fierce aerial predators. Remember, this is what they really are in spite of all appearances.
In places such as Panama and Columbia, these tyrants are kings of fruit whereas in Michigan and Ontario they are rulers of flies. They know no borders, per se, and wander about the western hemisphere as if they own it all. And, you could say that they do. All this is hard for us northern bird aficionados to grasp. Knowing this, it would probably be more proper (or is it properer?) to call them by their home town name of Este Tirano rather than the blatantly Anglicized Eastern Kingbird. Should they be greeted with “bienvenido a su retiro el norte de vuestra grandeza humilde” (welcome to your humble northern retreat, your highness) instead of our local downriver “Hey, where you been?”
How you choose to answer the previous question, I’ll leave up to you. If your Spanish as as bad, or as non-existent as mine, then you might end up saying something really embarrassing. For all I know my Google translated welcome phrase might actually say “Your chipmunk is a wrinkle jolly pop.” I choose to simply recognize the incredible fact that our Kingbirds are seasoned travelers who grace us with their brief but welcome presence.