Tyrants Among Us

by Skip Via
skip@westvalleynaturalists.org

There are indeed tyrants living amongst us. You may not be aware of this, because the ones we see here in the valley are rather inconspicuous. I’m specifically referring to two members of the Tyrant Flycatcher family that make their summer homes here–the Eastern Kingbird and the Western Wood-Pewee.

Both the kingbird and the wood-pewee are sparrow-sized gray birds that live in similar habitats and feed on the same prey, and it’s easy to mistake one for the other if you don’t look carefully.

Eastern Kingbird.

The eastern kingbird is darker gray (even to black) than its cousin and sports a white breast. They have a small forehead peak that is not always visible. They are quite common here in the valley in the summer. You can find them perched on fences and low branches along unplowed fields and meadows waiting to make a short foray into the field to catch insects. Their feeding behavior is a good way to identify them. They generally start and end their forays close to the same spot on the fence or branch. They fly erratically as they take insects from the air. They’re also known to eat berries and can hover briefly to take them. (I’ve never observed this.) We most commonly see them on our back fence bordering a grazing field for cattle in the evening hours, but they can be there at any time of day. Other very good places to view kingbirds are along the fences around the Potholes (see Locations) and along the Siderius bike path following Ashley Creek south of town.

Eastern kingbird perched atop a Ponderosa pine; peak more visible.

Kingbirds come by their name by their behavior. They are fearless. A single kingbird will readily take on any bird that it encounters, including much larger raptors. I’ve seen them chase ravens, red tailed hawks, and great horned owls in the field behind our house. They will often gang up on an intruder to their territory as well, never stopping until they have driven their enemy well away from their territory.

Western Wood-Pewee

Wood-pewees look similar to kingbirds but are duller gray and their breasts are mottled gray. Like the kingbird, wood-pewees have long tails and wingtips and have a feathered peak that is not always visible. Their white wing bars may be more prominent than those of the kingbird. They tend to occupy the same habitat as their cousins and feed in the same way, flying out from their perches along meadows to catch insects. Both the kingbird and the wood-pewee will swallow smaller insects in flight, but they will bring larger insects back to their perch and beat them against a branch, either to disable them or to shake off wings and other indigestible parts before swallowing them.

We should start seeing both of these tyrant flycatchers in large numbers in early to mid-spring here in the valley. Keep observing and send photos.

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