The Western Kingbird is a large and lovely flycatcher native to all of the West in the right habitat.
One of my, “duties as assigned”, with Friends of Camas National Wildlife Refuge is to write the column entitled Bird of the Month for the website (friendsofcamas.org). Winter is a tough season for this column as I like to write about birds that can actually be seen during that time and I have exhausted most of the winter birds. So, I am thrilled that spring is here and once again, I have a plethora of birds from which to choose.
Among a wide palette of birds that will just get bigger as May advances, I chose to write the Bird of the Month about one of my favorite birds, the Western Kingbird. It is a favorite for many reasons—it is native, easy to recognize, beautiful, fascinating to observe, is relatively common and actually breeds in our area, unlike so many of the songbirds you might see this month.
Kingbirds, and there are seven species in the U.S., are members of the tyrant flycatcher family. As such, they share the flattened, broad-based bill and exceptional flying skills of other flycatchers. Like other flycatchers, they are predators, hunting insects on the wing. Some kingbirds, including the Western Kingbird, also have a tiny hook at the tip of their upper bill, a trait not shared by all flycatchers.
While most flycatchers are small, averaging 5-6 inches, most kingbirds are significantly larger, up to 10 inches in length and twice the weight of an average flycatcher such as the Dusky-capped Flycatcher. The Western Kingbird is about 9 inches long and weighs about an ounce and a half.
The Western Kingbird has a gray head and back and a lighter gray chest. Dark wings separate these from a lemon-yellow belly. The dark tail has a thin white stripe on each side. The eye, feet and the bill are dark. There are three other species of kingbirds with yellow bellies, but their ranges don’t overlap in our area.
Western kingbirds range from the Pacific coast to the prairie states and from southern Canada to northern Mexico. Within this range, they are common in open habitats below 7,000 feet a.s.l. that have lots of trees, shrubs, fences and powerlines from which they can launch their aerobatic hunting attacks.
Western kingbirds are a species that seems to be benefitting from the human-caused changes to the landscape. As more trees, shelterbelts and fences appeared in the mid-west, and as forests were cleared, Western kingbirds expanded their range eastward. Many Western kingbirds have wintered in Florida for 100 years.
With a genus name of Tyrannus, and a common name of kingbird, you might expect that these birds are a bit feisty. Males establish territories early and when they pair up, defend these territories with energy and style. The males use a harsh buzzing and whir their wings at intruders. Both sexes snap their bills and raise their red crowns (much like a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, these are normally hidden under feathers on their heads) when provoked. They will take on intruders far larger than they are, often driving off red-tailed hawks and kestrels.
Whether for the Post Register or for the Friends of Camas NWR website, it is great to write about a native species that is doing well and one that can be a lot of fun to watch.
Help Idaho Wildlife
When we traveled across the state in October, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates.
C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles!
See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live.
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Perfect Light Photo Supply
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho