Bird of the Month May 2019

Western Kingbird

Tyrannus verticalis

Kingbirds are members of the flycatcher family, Tyrannidae, but are much larger than the typical flycatcher. The Western Kingbird (sexes are similar) sports a gray head, chest and back and a lemon-yellow belly separated by dark wings and tail. The bill is thick (compared to other flycatchers) and black. The dark tail is edged with white feathers that aren’t always visible but are easy to spot in flight. They also have a red crown, but it is only visible when the bird is agitated.

Behavior and Habitat

Western Kingbirds range from southern Canada to northern Mexico and from the west coast to the prairie states. They are common in open habitats that include trees and shrubs.

Watch for Western Kingbirds on fences, powerlines, trees, and shrubs. From these perches they spot prey and make acrobatic hunting trips, often returning repeatedly to the same perch.

During the breeding season, a Western Kingbird pair will vigorously defend their territory against other kingbirds and predators even as large are Red-tailed hawks.

Although the pair is monogamous through the nesting season, the female is the homemaker of the pair, weaving together a deep nest with an inner cup lined with soft materials. Both parents raise one to two broods of up to seven nestlings a year.

Similar Species

There are several species of kingbirds and flycatchers that resemble the Western Kingbird, but none of them have ranges that overlap in Idaho with the exception of the Ash-throated Flycatcher. This bird is much less yellow and is smaller than a Western Kingbird. In reality, Western Kingbirds will be most often confused with Eastern Kingbirds which have a white belly, and Northern Shrikes which also lack yellow bellies and have a “bandit’s mask” around the eyes.

Cool Facts from All About

  • The Western Kingbird’s breeding range has been spreading for the last century as an unplanned result of human activities. By planting trees and installing utility poles in open areas, people have provided hunting perches and nest sites, and by clearing forests they have created open habitats suitable for foraging.
  • Though known as birds of the West, Western Kingbirds tend to wander during fall migration. They show up along the East Coast, between Florida and Newfoundland, every autumn—but only rarely during the spring. In 1915 Western Kingbirds began spending winters in Florida, where they are now regular winter residents.
  • Western Kingbirds aggressively fend off predators and other kingbirds from their territories. The males warn off intruders with harsh buzzes or whirring wings. Both males and females snap their bills and raise their red crowns (normally hidden under gray feathers on their heads) when provoked. As the breeding season wears on, each pair defends a smaller and smaller territory. By the mid-incubation time, the territory includes the nest tree and little else.
  • The Western Kingbird was originally known as the Arkansas Kingbird, but scientists changed its name to acknowledge its wide range across western North America.
  • The oldest Western Kingbird on record was a male, and at least 6 years, 11 months old when he was found in South Dakota.


When and where found at Camas NWR

Look for Western Kingbirds anywhere on the Refuge, but especially near the shelterbelts and other habitats with taller vegetation, fences or powerlines.


“Western Kingbirds are common and overall, populations remained stable between 1966 and 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 22 million with 91% spending part of the year in the U.S., 49% in Mexico, and 5% breeding in Canada. They rate a 9 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List. Western Kingbird populations fluctuate on a local scale, decreasing when high predation or bad weather destroy many nests but generally rebounding quickly after favorable years. Western Kingbirds seem to benefit from many human activities, and their range has grown since the late 1800s. They have spread eastward across the prairies of the Dakotas as people planted trees and expanded across Texas as people cleared forests and installed utility poles and wires. Since Western Kingbirds nest near cultivated crops and often hunt for insects in farm fields, they may be harmed by pesticides.”

Text by Terry Thomas. Source:

Photo by Terry Thomas.