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North Words: Kingbirds and flycatchers are admirable birds

A friend of mine recently showed a PowerPoint presentation of his experiences as a helicopter pilot in the Army National Guard and his deployment to Iraq in the late 2000s.

Being an amateur nature photographer, and a good one at that, he couldn't help but include some landscape and wildlife photos in his presentation. One photo that he took of a bird near a military base in Oklahoma caught my attention.

He had forgotten what species the bird was, but he remembered that it was the Oklahoma state bird. And while I did not immediately know the name of the bird either, I instantly knew that the species belong to a large family of birds knows as flycatchers. And a quick Internet search later on revealed the bird as a scissor-tailed flycatcher.

While Minnesota is not the home of this unique Oklahoma flycatcher, our state is home to several other species of flycatchers, including two species of kingbirds: the eastern kingbird and western kingbird. All flycatchers, including kingbirds, belong to the family of "tyrant" flycatchers, Tyrannidae. True tyrants they are, or at least capable of behaving as such, most members of the family are aggressive, especially the larger species such as eastern and western kingbirds when defending their breeding and nesting territories.

While there are many other birds that have fly-catching abilities, like gnatcatchers, kinglets, warblers, bluebirds, and others, few birds can match the fly-catching skills of tyrant flycatchers. Other common tyrannids in our region include eastern wood-peewee, eastern phoebe, least flycatcher, and the great crested flycatcher.

Less commonly observed, not to mention difficult to distinguish from one another, including between least flycatchers, are the willow and alder flycatchers. Often is the case -- as it is with many other look-alike species of birds -- voice helps cement positive identification. The least flycatcher, for example, is famous for its loud and distinctive "CHEbek" call.

I first became acquainted with eastern kingbirds long ago as a boy canoeing the Crow Wing River in Wadena County. Years later, while conducting wildlife research on wetlands of the Great Plains, I was delighted to make acquaintance once again with eastern kingbirds. Regarding the latter period of time, I also observed abundant western kingbirds.

Western kingbirds, a yellow bellied bird that is perhaps more eye-catching than the eastern, resembles the great crested flycatcher, minus the head-crest. Nevertheless, great crested flycatchers are birds of hardwood forests, whereas all kingbirds prefer more open landscapes.

I've often observed eastern kingbirds capturing flying insects after launching themselves from a favorite perch and give chase. The hapless insects, though expert flyers in their own right, are always overmatched by the kingbirds' sheer will and command of wing. Culminating each series of seemingly hard-earned victories, audible snaps, like the loud click of one's fingers, could be heard as the kingbird's beak snapped shut onto its meal.

And it is with this amazing fly-catching attribute -- the snapping beak -- that not only helps such birds capture their prey with such efficiency, but also to differentiate the tyrant flycatchers from the many other insect-eating passerines. Phoebes, pewees, Empidonax flycatchers, and of course, kingbirds, possess special ligaments that connect the upper and lower mandibles. These ligaments are like tiny springs that snap the open mouth closed when a flying insect is captured.

Eastern kingbirds are conspicuously plumaged and sizable songbirds. Though the bird is the smallest of the seven species of kingbirds that occur in North America, eastern kingbirds are about the size of a Baltimore oriole. Dark gray above, white below, a black head, and white-tipped tail feathers, it's hard to mistake an eastern kingbird with any other bird. And as with most tyrant flycatchers, kingbirds, including eastern kingbirds, are sexually monomorphic in plumage characteristics; in other words, the sexes look alike. Yet to the astute observer, male and female eastern kingbirds tend to exhibit certain differences in behavior and posture.

Male birds frequently perch in a more upright posture than females normally do. Additionally, male eastern kingbirds often erect their head feathers in a slight crest, whereas females' heads remain less crested, if at all. Also, but barely noticeable on the heads of all species of kingbirds, is a red or orange crown-stripe that is hidden by the darker head feathers. Evidently the colored stripe is visible, and the brightest, on displaying male birds' heads.

As I noted earlier, the aggressive nature of eastern kingbirds is a noteworthy trait. I've watched these fearless birds pursue and relentlessly attack blackbirds, crows, and species of raptors, herons, and gulls that enter their breeding and nesting territories. Calling wildly as they carry out their aerial assaults, I've never once observed a kingbird lose an aerial attack to an avian intruder.

Indeed, flycatchers, and particularly eastern and western kingbirds, are admirable birds. Kingbird parents are devoted to their young, caring for them longer than most other songbirds do. The energetic kingbird, expert flyer and catcher of flying insects, is a remarkable bird for us to see as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.