Couch’s Kingbird, although originally described as a full species in the mid-1800s, was soon reduced to a subspecies of the widespread Tropical Kingbird (Tyrannus melancholicus). In 1979, Traylor, in the course of his Herculean survey of all the tyrant flycatchers, restored Couch’s Kingbird to full species status, based primarily on the work of Smith (1966).
DISTRIBUTION. During the 1987-1992 field work for the TBBA project volunteers found most breeding records for Couch’s Kingbirds in the southern parts of the South Texas Brush Country and Coastal Sand Plain regions (as defined by Lockwood and Freeman 2004). The species range continues southward along the coastal plain of east Mexico and includes the Yucatan Peninsula, Belize and northeast Guatemala (Brush 1999).
SEASONAL OCCURRENCE: Couch’s Kingbird is a permanent resident throughout the central and southern portions of its range. In Texas and northeast Mexico Couch’s Kingbird is an irregular migrant; some individuals move south especially in colder winters, and most frequently from the northernmost parts of the breeding range. Most migrants arrive from early March to early April and return south from late August to mid-October with some moving south as late as mid-November. The breeding season extends from early April to late August with most breeding starting in May (Brush 1999, Lockwood and Freeman 2004).
BREEDING HABITAT. Couch’s Kingbird prefers to breed in thicker vegetation than Tropical Kingbird, including thorn forests, fields overgrown with shrubs, riparian areas and sometimes rural or suburban areas. Frequent nest sites include sugar hackberry, cedar elm, Texas ebony, and Mexican ash. The nest is placed within the foliage, usually about equidistant from the trunk and the outer edge of the foliage and 3 m (10 ft) from the top of the tree or shrub. The nest is often attached to several small branches.
The nest is an untidy bowl, apparently built by the female although both sexes glean nesting materials in flight. It is constructed of twigs, strips of bark or Spanish moss, sometimes lined with fine rootlets. The inside diameter is about 7.5 cm (3 in) and the cup depth is 3 cm (1.2 in). The female lays 3-5 creamy to rich buff eggs. The species is an occasional host to Bronzed Cowbirds (Molothrus aeneus; Oberholser 1974, Harrison 1979, Brush 1999).
STATUS. Lockwood and Freeman 2004 characterize Couch’s Kingbird as a common to uncommon summer resident in the lower Rio Grande valley and locally uncommon further north in the South Texas Brush Country. The North American Breeding Bird Survey detected this species on 21 routes in Texas and a route in Zapata County averaged 8 kingbirds per year (Price et al. 1995, Sauer et al. 2005). At Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge on the Rio Grande River breeding density in 1980-1981 was estimated to be 34 pair/100 ha (40 acres; Carter 1986).
Brush (1999) notes that the range of Couch’s Kingbird has expanded north from the lower Rio Grande River in the last century and recent records citied by Lockwood and Freeman (2004) suggest this process is still underway. This expansion is good news as it suggests that this species will be a part of the Texas avifauna through the foreseeable future.
Text by Robert C. Tweit (2005)
Brush, T. 1999. Couch’s Kingbird (Tyrannus couchii). In The birds of North America, No. 437 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
Carter, M. D. 1986. The parasitic behavior of the Bronzed Cowbird in South Texas. Condor 88; 11-25.
Harrison, H. H. 1979. A field guide to western birds’ nests. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA.
Lockwood, M. W. and B. Freeman. 2004. The TOS handbook of Texas birds. Texas A&M University Press, College Station.
Oberholser, H. C. 1974. The bird life of Texas. University of Texas Press, Austin.
Price, J., S. Droege, and A. Price. 1995. The summer atlas of North American birds. Academic Press, New York.
Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, and J. Fallon. 2005. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, results and analysis 1966-2004. Version 2005.1. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel MD (Web site, http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs).
Smith, W. J. 1966. Communication and relationships in the genus Tyrannus. Publ. Nuttall Ornithol. Club 6.
Traylor, M. A., Jr. 1979. Two sibling species of Tyrannus (Tyrannidae). Auk 96: 221-223.