WESTERN KINGBIRD Tyrannus verticalis

Art by Mimi Hoppe Wolf

The Western Kingbird is the most widespread of the North American yellow-bellied kingbirds (Oberholser 1974).  It breeds in open country in western North America from the Río Grande valley and northwest Mexico to southern Canada.  A neotropical migrant, it winters along the Pacific coast and adjacent interior of southern Mexico and Central America (Gamble & Bergin 1996).  It formerly was called “Arkansas Kingbird” (e.g., Strecker 1912; Bent 1942).  Formerly the name “Western Kingbird” occasionally was associated with Tropical Kingbird (T. melancholicus) (Gamble and Bergin 1996).

DISTRIBUTION:  Western Kingbirds nest throughout all biogeographic areas of Texas except for the Pineywoods in the far eastern portion of the state.  Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) data (Sauer et al. 2000) show highest densities along the New Mexico border, decreasing toward the east and south.

SEASONAL OCCURRENCE:  The earliest and latest TBBAP observations of eggs were the third weeks of May and July, respectively.  The earliest TBBAP nestling date was the fourth week of April (in fact earlier than the early date for eggs); the late nestling date was the second week of August.  In previous studies, Western Kingbirds in the Trans-Pecos arrived at nest sites from Mid-April to mid-May, began nest-building early May to early July, brooded as late as 21 July, and remained in nesting areas until early August (Ohlendorf 1971, 1974; Gamble 1985); and in Houston, Western Kingbirds were at their nesting sites from mid-April to mid-August (Honig 1992).

There are very few verified winter records for the western and interior United States.  However, they occur annually but rarely until early January along the Gulf Coast (Gamble and Bergin 1996; Dauphin et al. 1989; Oberholser 1974); additional (non-annual) records are noted on the Texas coast through mid-February (e.g., Richardson et al. 1998).

BREEDING HABITAT:  Western Kingbirds inhabit open country-grasslands, desert scrub, pastures, cultivated fields, urban areas, and savannah-nearly always with trees, shrubs, or tall man-made structures (Gamble and Bergin 1996) from which they fly out to capture insects on the wing or drop to the ground to catch insect prey (Oberholser 1974; Blancher and Robertson 1984).  Trees and shrubs are also the natural nesting sites for this species (Oberholser 1974).  Where there are no suitable trees, they use almost any human structure available, such as utility poles and buildings (Bent 1942; Oberholser 1974).   Over 40 percent of nests in Trans-Pecos studies were on man-made structures, especially telephone poles (Gamble 1985; Ohlendorf 1974).   In Houston they nest almost exclusively at or immediately adjacent to electric power substations, most of which include or are adjacent to grassy areas (Honig 1992).

Western Kingbirds usually nest 4.6-9.1 m (15-30 ft) high in trees (range 2.1-12.2 m, 7-40 ft); they sometimes nest in shrubs as low as 1.5 m (5 ft) (Bent 1942; Gamble 1985).  On man-made structures they may nest considerably higher (RH).  The nest is an open cup of coarse grasses and other plant fibers, thin twigs, rootlets, hair, feathers, and other scraps, lined with similar but finer material; in trees it is usually well out on a horizontal tree limb, but occasionally is near the trunk (Harrison 1978).

Western Kingbirds are geographically sympatric breeders with four congeners-Cassin’s Kingbird (T. vociferans), Eastern Kingbird (T. tyrannus), Couch’s Kingbird (T. couchii), and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (T. forficatus) -segregating by habitat preferences (Gamble and Bergin 1996; Brush 1999).  They are tolerant of conspecifics, in the Trans-Pecos nesting as close as 12 m (Gamble 1985).  They may nest in same tree as other species, e.g., Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura), House Sparrow (Passer domesticus), Great-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus), Ash-throated Flycatcher (Myiarchus cinerascens), and Bullock’s Oriole (Icterus bullockii) in the Trans-Pecos (Gamble 1985).

STATUS:  Before the advent of European man, Western Kingbird range undoubtedly was restricted by the lack of tall perches in otherwise suitable open country habitat.  Its range in Texas in the early 1900s was the western part of the state:   the Panhandle, southern plains, and the mountains west and south of the Pecos River (Strecker 1912).  Since then, man’s opening of woodlands (e.g., mesquite), planting of trees on the plains, and erection of power lines, telephone poles, and other structures which accompanied settlement have facilitated expansion of Western Kingbird breeding range (Ohlendorf 1971; Oberholser 1974; MacKenzie and Sealy 1981).  Nesting had spread by the 1950s east to Austin and south to Eagle Pass and Cotulla, and by the late 1960s to the Río Grande delta (Oberholser 1974) and the upper Texas coast (Feltner and Pettingell 1980).  Western Kingbirds expanded into Brazos County in the early 1970s (Williams 1970, 1971, 1972), possibly as a result of a trend toward drier conditions (Arnold 1973).  By the early 1970s they were nesting east of Dallas (Oberholser 1974).  Since the 1980s they have bred annually in Houston, mostly at electric power substations (Honig 1992).

TBBA data indicate that eastward expansion of Western Kingbird nesting has reached approximately the western edge of the Pineywoods in east Texas.  The Pineywoods may prove a barrier to further eastward expansion of its nesting range.

BBS data 1966-1996 (Sauer et al. 2000) indicate increasing Western Kingbird populations throughout most of its Texas range, with decreasing trends in the eastern Panhandle to the Dallas-Fort Worth vicinity, the eastern Edwards Plateau to Matagorda Bay, and a few locations in the Trans-Pecos.

Because Western Kingbirds often nest near and forage in cultivated lands, pesticide exposure is a potential threat (Gamble & Bergin 1996).

Text by Robert Honig (ca 2001) 

[Larry Gamble provided significant input on relevant literature.]

Texas Breeding Bird Atlas map

Literature cited

Arnold, K. A.  1973.   The birds of Brazos County: thirty years in retrospect.  Bull. Texas Ornithol. Soc. 6: 4-6.

Bent, A. C.  1942.   Life histories of North American flycatchers, larks, swallows, and their allies.  U.S. Nat Mus Bull No. 179.  Washington, DC.

Blancher, P. J., and R. J. Robertson.  1984.  Resource use by sympatric kingbirds.  Condor 86: 305-313.

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, Philadelphia, PA.

Dauphin, D. T., A. N. Pettingell, and E. R. Rozenburg (compilers).   1989.  A birder’s checklist of the upper Texas coast, 7th ed.  Ornithology Group, Houston Outdoor Nature Club.

Feltner, T. B., and A. N. Pettingell (compilers).  1980.  A birder’s checklist of the upper Texas coast, 6th ed.  Ornithology Group, Houston Outdoor Nature Club.

Gamble, L. R.  1985.   Nesting ecology of Western Kingbirds (Tyrannus verticalis Say) in the Trans-Pecos area of Texas relative to pesticidal contamination.  M.S. thesis, Texas A&I University, Kingsville.

Gamble, L. R., and T. M. Bergin.  1996.  Western Kingbird (Tyrannus verticalis).  In  The birds of North America, No.  227 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.).  The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C.

Harrison, C.  1978.   A field guide to the nests, eggs and nestlings of North American birds.  Collins, Cleveland, OH.

Honig, R. A.  1992.   Western Kingbird (Tyrannus verticalis) utilization of electric power substations in Houston (Harris County), Texas, and vicinity.  Bull. Texas Ornithol. Soc. 25: 13-19.

MacKenzie, D. I., and S. G. Sealy.  1981.  Nest site selection in Eastern and Western Kingbirds: a multivariate approach.  Condor 83: 310-321.

Oberholser, H. C.  1974.   The bird life of Texas.  University of Texas Press, Austin.

Ohlendorf, H. M.  1971.   Competitive relationships among selected species of flycatchers (Tyrannidae) in Trans-Pecos Texas.  Ph.D. diss, Texas A&M University, College Station.

Ohlendorf, H. M.  1974.   Competitive relationships among kingbirds (Tyrannus) in Trans-Pecos Texas.  Wilson Bull. 86: 357-373.

Richardson, D., E. Rozenburg, and D. Sarkozi.  1998.  A birder’s checklist of the upper Texas coast, 8th ed.  Ornithology Group, Houston Outdoor Nature Club.

Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, I. Thomas, J. Fallon, and G. Gough.   2000.  The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966-1999. Version 98.1.  USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD.

Strecker, J. K., Jr.  1912.  The birds of Texas, an annotated check-list.  Baylor University Bulletin 25: 1-69.

Williams, F.  1970.   Regional reports.  Southern Great Plains region.  Audubon Field Notes 24: 695.

Williams, F. 1971.  Regional reports.  Southern Great Plains region.  Am. Birds 25: 873-874.

Williams, F.  1972.  Regional reports.  Southern Great Plains region.  Am. Birds 26: 874.

Comments are closed.