Kings of the Neighborhood

Exploring Kansas Outdoors


There is a big wooden street light pole midway between our driveway and the neighbors. Every morning for the past couple years, at least one of the Mississippi Kites here in town could be found perched on the top of that pole, calmly surveying the surroundings as life went-on beneath it. This year, though, not so much, and today I discovered why. The metal pipe that extends the light out over the street fastens to the pole with a metal bracket formed in the shape of a “u.” For the second time in a few years, a pair of western kingbirds have claimed that metal bracket for themselves and built a nest cradled in its interior. Our first impression of their chosen “digs” was “Why on earth right there, of all places, when there is a fine oak tree just a few yards away that would provide much more cover and protection.”

The answer to our bewilderment lies in the fact that kingbirds are classified as “tyrant flycatchers.” Birds classified as flycatchers hunt and feed by snatching insects in midair, known as “aerial hawking,” or while hovering, often returning to the same perch time and again with their catch. Because of their mode of hunting, they need large open areas nearby to accommodate their hunting style, thus, nesting in the open on that light pole makes perfect sense to them. Plus, the street light beside them will attract a buffet of insects every night. The “tyrant” part of their classification is earned because they aggressively defend their nest and territory against intruders, often succeeding in driving away much larger birds like hawks and owls (which explains the absence of the Kites.) That was evident the other evening as I watched them from the front porch. Both parents were at the nest, but were very nervous. They are used to watching us putter around in the nearby flowerbed or pull weeds beneath their pole, so I wondered why they seemed so on-edge. Then I looked to the sky and noticed several of our big local Mississippi Kites soaring around on the updrafts high above. They were no threat, but had the kingbirds on alert nonetheless. Western kingbirds are a species that have benefitted from man’s acts of planting trees and erecting light and power poles.

Kingbirds make a kind of jabbering, twittering sound and we often see them hovering above the nest while making that noise. They are masters of hovering by flapping their outstretched wings but remaining in one spot above us. They are also known to be masters of great acrobatic maneuvers while hunting, although we have not yet been treated to that. Kingbird’s breed and nest all across the western half of the United States and winter in Mexico and South America. They have a small topknot that usually lies flat unless agitated, but their pale-yellow breast is probably what distinguishes them the most.

We enjoy watching our kingbird pair; one is always on the nest, only visible from our vantage point on the ground by either a head or a tail sticking over the side of the nest. The other is usually near, either perched on the metal pipe holding the light or flitting around, always greeting our presence with their jabbering song. It will be fun to watch them raise their chicks high on that light pole; yet another way to Explore Kansas Outdoors!

Steve can be contacted by email at [email protected]


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