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Cori Brown: On this day for dads, all hail the kingbird

Cori Brown: On this day for dads, all hail the kingbird
The kingbird, with his distinctive white tipped tail, loves to perch on wire fences while he looks for insects. (Cori Brown photo)

It’s Father’s Day! While all you fathers out there reign supreme in your castles, the kingbird rules his castle in the avian world.

You’ve never heard of the kingbird? I am not surprised. He’s not the flashiest of birds but he’s always ready to chair a board meeting.

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He’s dressed for success in a classic charcoal grey suit (aka his upper body) and a crisp white shirt (his chest and belly). Of course, as king and chairman of the board, his white tipped feathers at the bottom of his tail set him apart from ordinary grey birds like phoebes and wood pewees.

He often runs his business perched on fences in open fields and backyards or in trees along forest edges. Much like human dads, he keeps a sharp eye on everything going on in his neighborhood. This includes anyone trying to move in on his territory.

When potential adversaries appear, the “king” in kingbird really kicks in. Woe be to anyone who thinks he can do a hostile takeover. This is especially true for other kingbirds, with whom he can engage in aerial battles not unlike eagles.

Hapless passersby and nest predators don’t get a free pass either. Blue jays, crows, and even squirrels and red-tailed hawks get the same aggressive dive bombing treatment (did I mention he’s smaller than a robin?) that fellow kingbirds endure.

When he’s really upset, a “crown” of brightly colored red, orange or yellow feathers pop up on his head. It’s time to head for the exit doors when this happens! Throw in his Latin name, Tyrannus tyrannus, which means tyrant or absolute ruler, and you get the message.

Someone needs to buy him a T-shirt that says, “Don’t mess with the boss!”

When he orders lunch, it’s pretty much the same thing every day: insects. As a member of the flycatcher family, he has more than enough to choose from, hopefully including this year’s crop of gigantic mosquitoes. We can thank another soggy spring for their proliferation. By late summer, he adds fruit to his lunch plate, giving all of us gardeners a good excuse to include berry producing plants in our landscapes.

Fortunately he takes long lunches (as in all day) so there’s lots of munching going on. He’s a bit of a gulper, too, in that he swallows his entrees whole. Larger insects such as wasps, grasshoppers and crickets get the royal treatment as he bashes them senseless, then downs them with relish. Even better, he regurgitates the crunchy exoskeletons in pellet form, making him a man of the times by naturally recycling.

As a parent, he is a model dad. Mom is the architect of the nest but dad stays close by watching for predators and competitors. Apple, hawthorn, spruce and mulberry trees in open areas or near water are favorite nesting locations.

He and mom spend seven weeks feeding their young, which is longer than many birds. Because the kids stick around longer, they only have one family a year (other backyard birds like wrens, house sparrows and bluebirds typically have multiple broods each year).

In the winter, he and mom take a well-deserved vacation in the Amazon and become vegetarians, eating mainly fruit. Everyone becomes chummy, too, and they all hang out together in flocks (it’s amazing what a nice vacation in a warm climate will do for you).

Like all great dads, both bird and human, the kingbird is a dedicated family man and keeper of the castle. Happy Father’s Day to all the wonderful dads out there!

UPDATE: Last month I wrote about the great crested flycatchers taking up residence in a nest box close to the house. The bad news is they moved because the house wrens and house sparrows destroyed their three beautiful eggs. The good news is they relocated to another nest box in the woods and have three more eggs. Stay tuned!

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