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Eastern Kingbird

Tyrannus tyrannus
Overview
Minnesota Seasonal Status:

A regular breeding species and migrant. The Eastern Kingbird was a common species during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (MNBBA).

North American Breeding Distribution and Relative Abundance:

The Eastern Kingbird can be found throughout much of Canada, from the southern reaches of the Yukon and the Northwest Territories east across the boreal forest region to Newfoundland and southern Quebec. In the United States it is absent only from the southwestern states and along the Pacific Coast. Within its breeding range, populations reach their highest breeding densities within the Prairie Pothole Region and Central Mixed Grass Prairie (Figure 1).

Conservation Concern:
Conservation Status Score 11

Assigned a Continental Concern Score of 11/20 by Partners in Flight.

Life History
Migration:

A long-distance, Neotropical migrant that winters in South America.

Food:

An aerial insectivore that also gleans insects from foliage and dives after prey items on the ground. Also consumes some fruit and seeds during the breeding season.

Nest:

An open-cup nest usually placed within the upper third of a tree. Bits of trash, such as twine or plastic, may appear in the nest.

Eastern Kingbird Eastern Kingbird. Tyrannus tyrannus
© Mike Lentz
Figure 1.

Breeding distribution and relative abundance of the Eastern Kingbird in North America based on the federal Breeding Bird Survey from 2011 to 2015 (Sauer et al. 2017).

Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution*

As early as the late 1800s, Hatch (1892) recognized the Eastern Kingbird, a prominent bird of the open country, as a species he was “sure of seeing” wherever he travelled in the state. Little had changed 50 years later, when Roberts (1932) described it as an abundant breeding species throughout Minnesota. Dressed in its rather formal black and white attire, the Eastern Kingbird is easy to spot wherever it is present. Roberts wrote:

The Kingbird is such an abundant, noisy, and conspicuous fellow that it is probably one of the best-known birds in the state. It is everywhere from early May until September, in forests, in orchards, on the prairies, and in the outskirts of towns and cities, and is one of the most frequent “post and wire” birds by the roadside.

At the time of writing, Roberts had collected breeding evidence (confirmed and inferred nesting reports) from 14 counties, including Houston County in the southeast, Jackson County in the southwest, Marshall and Polk Counties in the northwest, and Lake County in the northeast.

In 1968 and 1971 Breckenridge published two small articles commenting on the declining numbers of both the Eastern and Western Kingbirds (Breckenridge 1968, 1971). Using data he and Roberts collected in 1926 and comparing that to systematic surveys conducted in 1971, he found the Eastern Kingbird had been nearly 12 times more abundant in 1926; the Western Kingbird experienced similar declines. Breckenridge speculated that these aerial insectivores were impacted by the intensive use of pesticides in the agricultural regions of the state.

Although the Eastern Kingbird’s numbers were clearly declining, the species remained widely distributed throughout the state. When Green and Janssen (1975) and later Janssen (1987) wrote their updated accounts of the species’ distribution, both accounts noted that the bird was a statewide resident and could be found breeding in all regions of the state. Janssen included a statewide distribution map that identified 42 counties where nesting had been documented since 1970. More than a decade later, Hertzel and Janssen (1998) added 11 more counties to the list. Finally, years of extensive field work conducted by the Minnesota Biological Survey beginning in the late 1980s tallied more than one thousand Eastern Kingbird breeding season locations in all corners of the state (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2016).

During the course of the MNBBA, observers reported a total of 3,672 Eastern Kingbird records from 47.5% (2,274/4,791) of the surveyed atlas blocks and from 60.8% (1,422/2,337) of the priority blocks. Breeding evidence was reported in a total of 352 blocks (Figures 2 and 3; Table 1). The birds were observed in all of Minnesota’s 87 counties and were confirmed breeding in 75 counties (one block with confirmed breeding evidence straddled 2 counties, Renville and Redwood). A total of 28 of these counties were additions to the list published by Hertzel and Janssen in 1998. Although reports came from all regions of the state, the species was least abundant in northeastern Minnesota, east of St. Louis County, and in the very northern regions of north-central Minnesota.

MNBBA records were combined with data on climate, habitat availability and landscape context to predict the species’ statewide distribution. The resulting model predicted the species is least abundant in the Laurentian Mixed Forest Province, especially in the Arrowhead Region, and in metropolitan regions such as the Twin Cities and Rochester (Figure 4). Predicted breeding densities throughout western and southern Minnesota are quite uniform with no areas of significantly higher abundance.

Since Hatch (1892) first wrote his account of the Eastern Kingbird nearly 150 years ago, the species’ widespread distribution throughout the state has remained unchanged, despite an apparent decline in overall abundance. The same is true across North America. Although the loss of extensive forest habitat and the planting of trees in the Great Plains likely provided some benefits to the species, no significant changes to its distribution have been noted, at least in the past 100 years (Murphy 1996).

*Note that the definition of confirmed nesting of a species is different for Breeding Bird Atlas projects, including the definition used by the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, compared with a more restrictive definition used by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. For details see the Data Methods Section.

Figure 2.

Breeding distribution of the Eastern Kingbird in Minnesota based on the Breeding Bird Atlas (2009 – 2013).

Print Map
Figure 3.

Summary statistics of observations by breeding status category for the Eastern Kingbird in Minnesota based on all blocks (each 5 km x 5 km) surveyed during the Breeding Bird Atlas (2009-2013).

Breeding statusBlocks (%)Priority Blocks (%)
Confirmed352 (7.3%)241 (10.3%)
Probable784 (16.4%)580 (24.8%)
Possible1,123 (23.4%)591 (25.3%)
Observed15 (0.3%)10 (0.4%)
Total2,274 (47.5%)1,422 (60.8%)
Table 1.

Summary statistics for the Eastern Kingbird observations by breeding status category for all blocks and priority blocks (each 5 km x 5 km) surveyed during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (2009-2013).

Figure 4.

Predicted breeding distribution (birds detected per 10-minute point count) of the Eastern Kingbird in Minnesota based on habitat, landscape context, and climate data gathered during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (2009-2013) using the General Linear Modeling method without an adjustment for detectability.

Breeding Habitat

The Eastern Kingbird is found in open landscapes that provide suitable trees for nesting and sufficient perches for foraging. Such general habitat requirements are met in a variety of habitats, including pastures with woody fence lines, shelterbelts, grasslands, orchards, forest clear cuts and burns with standing snags, oak savannas, woodland edges, and even golf courses and city parks (Figure 5). Found across North America’s boreal forests and eastern deciduous forests, the species finds suitable habitat in the small farmsteads, parklands, forest edges, and roadside habitats embedded in otherwise forested landscapes.

Some field studies have noted the species’ affinity for sites associated with water and have reported high nesting densities in trees along the water’s edge or in dead snags surrounded by water (Murphy 1996). The National Forest Bird (NFB) monitoring program in northern Minnesota also documented the kingbird’s strong association with water in both the Superior and Chippewa National Forests (Niemi et al. 2016). Murphy (1996) suggested that in presettlement times the kingbird may have been restricted to wetland habitats, such as marshes and the riparian edges of lakes and rivers, and to open, disturbed habitats, such as forest burns and large blowdowns.

A profile of the kingbird’s habitat preferences at point counts conducted by the MNBBA is shown in Figure 6. Statewide, the species was most strongly associated with upland grasslands, followed by croplands, marshes and wet meadows, and developed areas where parklands often provide open, savanna-like habitat.

Figure 5.

Typical breeding habitat of the Eastern Kingbird in Minnesota (© Lee A. Pfannmuller).

Figure 6.

Habitat profile for the Eastern Kingbird based on habitats within 200 m of point counts where the species was present during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (2009-2013).

Population Abundance

Using data collected by the federal Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), biologists recently estimated the Eastern Kingbird population in North America at approximately 26 million breeding adults (Rosenberg et al. 2016). A few years earlier, biologists estimated that Minnesota supported approximately 1.7% of the North American population (Partners in Flight Science Committee 2013). Applying that percentage to the current continental population estimate yields a statewide Eastern Kingbird population of 442,000. A statewide estimate using MNBBA data was not generated.

Although it is a common species in Minnesota, the core of the kingbird’s breeding range is found further west in the Prairie Pothole Region and in the Central Mixed Grass Prairie just to the south (Figure 1). Here, the average number of birds seen per BBS route is approximately 12 to 13 birds each year. The highest number seen is nearly 22 in North Dakota. This compares to an annual average of 3 to 4 birds per BBS route in Minnesota (Sauer et al. 2017).

At the local level, breeding densities vary widely across the species’ range and have been reported as low as 0.3 birds per 40 ha to as high as 33 birds per 40 ha (Murphy 1996). A study of breeding birds on Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands in western Minnesota found an average of 2.2 birds per 40 ha (Hanowski 1995). In the forested landscape of northern Minnesota, where the kingbird is considerably less abundant, an average of 0.23 kingbirds were found on 100-10 minute unlimited distance point counts in the Superior National Forest and 0.94 kingbirds in the Chippewa National Forest. This compares to an average of nearly 140 to 220 Red-eyed Vireos and Ovenbirds, the most abundant species in both national forests (Niemi et al. 2016).

Despite their overall abundance, the Eastern Kingbird has been declining throughout most of its range since the BBS began in 1966. Across the BBS survey area, the species has shown a significant, steady decline averaging 1.28% per year (Sauer et al. 2017). This results in a cumulative loss of 38% (Rosenberg et al. 2016). No ecological region, province, or state has shown a significant increase in the population of the Eastern Kingbird since 1966, including Minnesota, where it has declined an average of 1.78% per year since 1967 (Figure 7). Only in the last few years does the statewide decline show some hint of leveling off.

Factors responsible for the species’ decline have not been investigated. Potential causes include: 1) habitat loss and degradation, 2) collisions with automobiles because the bird often nests and forages close to roads, and 3) pesticide use, given its prevalence in agricultural lands and orchards. Unfortunately, even though Breckenridge (1968) mentioned pesticides as a potential contributor to the species’ decline more than 50 years ago, few studies have closely examined their impact on local or regional populations. Some have suggested that population declines in the eastern United States may be the result of forest regeneration as abandoned farmlands succeed to forested habitats (Murphy 1996). A study in New York examined the potential causes of the local declines observed in Charlotte Valley, in the southeastern region of the state. Although the investigator could not dismiss the potential impacts of a decline in adult survival, the impact of forest regeneration was dismissed as a contributing factor. The total amount of forest cover had changed insignificantly during the period of study. On the other hand, the percentage of the population’s decline was nearly identical to the decline in the percentage of cropland used only for pasture or grazing (Murphy 2001).

Figure 7.

Breeding population trend for the Eastern Kingbird in Minnesota for 1967–2015 based on the federal Breeding Bird Survey (Sauer et al. 2017).

Conservation

Although the decline in its population is cause for concern, the Eastern Kingbird’s wide breeding distribution, its relatively large population size, and the absence of immediate and overriding threats to its breeding and wintering habitats, led to a moderate Continental Concern Score of 11/20 (Rosenberg et al. 2016). The species is not state-listed, nor is listed as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Minnesota.

The 2010 State of the Birds report assessed the species as having a moderate or medium vulnerability to warming temperatures (North American Bird Conservation Initiative 2010), but more intensive analyses have not been conducted.

Targeted recommendations for managing kingbird populations and their habitats are limited. Based on his study of the Eastern Kingbird in New York, Murphy (2001) suggested that the protection of riparian habitats was a high priority because these were the only habitats where local populations were not declining. Although kingbird populations did not fare as well in old fields and farmsteads, these sites supported the highest breeding densities of the species (Murphy 2001). In addition to protecting riparian zones, he argued, land preservation efforts to protect small farms and open spaces are critical to prevent further decline of this emblematic open-country species.

  • Breckenridge, Walter J. 1968. “Where Are Our Kingbirds?” Loon 40: 56–57.

  • Breckenridge, Walter J. 1971. “Our Disappearing Kingbirds.” Loon 43: 89–90.
  • Green, Janet C., and Robert B. Janssen. 1975. Minnesota Birds: Where, When and How Many. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  • Hanowski, JoAnn M. 1995. “Breeding Bird Composition and Species Relative Abundance Patterns on Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) Land in Western Minnesota.” Loon 67: 12–16.

  • Hatch, Philo L. 1892. First Report: Accompanied with Notes on the Birds of Minnesota. The Geological and Natural History Survey of Minnesota Zoological Series. Minneapolis: Harrison & Smith Printers.

  • Hertzel, Anthony X., and Robert B. Janssen. 1998. County Nesting Records of Minnesota Birds. Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union Occasional Papers, no 2. Minneapolis: The Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union.

  • Janssen, Robert B. 1987. Birds in Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  • Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. 2016. “Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus).” Minnesota Biological Survey: Breeding Bird Locations. http://files.dnr.state.mn.us/eco/mcbs/birdmaps/eastern_kingbird_map.pdf
  • Murphy, Michael T. 1996. “Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus).” The Birds of North America, edited by Paul G. Rodewald. Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Retrieved from the Birds of North America: https://birdsna.org/Species-Account/bna/species/easkin doi: 10.2173/bna.253
  • Murphy, Michael T. 2001. “Source-Sink Dynamics of a Declining Eastern Kingbird Population and the Value of Sink Habitats.” Conservation Biology 15: 737–748.
  • Niemi, Gerald J., Robert W. Howe, Brian R. Sturtevant, Linda R. Parker, Alexis R. Grinde, Nicholas P. Danz, Mark D. Nelson, Edmund J. Zlonis, Nicholas G. Walton, Erin E. Gnass Giese, and Sue M. Lietz. 2016. Analysis of Long Term Forest Bird Monitoring in National Forests of the Western Great Lakes Region. U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service General Technical Report NRS-159. Newtown Square, PA: USDA Forest Service, Northern Research Station.

  • North American Bird Conservation Initiative, U.S. Committee. 2010. The State of the Birds 2010 Report on Climate Change, United States of America. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior. http://www.stateofthebirds.org/2010/pdf_files/State of the Birds_FINAL.pdf

  • Partners in Flight Science Committee. 2013. Population Estimates Database. Version 2013. http://rmbo.org/pifpopestimates

  • Roberts, Thomas S. 1932. The Birds of Minnesota. 2 vols. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  • Rosenberg, Kenneth V., Judith A. Kennedy, Randy Dettmers, Robert P. Ford, Debra Reynolds, John D. Alexander, Carol J. Beardmore, Peter J. Blancher, Roxanne E. Bogart, Gregory S. Butcher, Alaine F. Camfield, Andrew Couturier, Dean W. Demarest, Wendy E. Easton, Jim J. Giocomo, Rebecca Hylton Keller, Anne E. Mini, Arvind O. Panjabi, David N. Pashley, Terrell D. Rich, Janet M. Ruth, Henning Stabins, Jessica Stanton, and Tom Will. 2016. Partners in Flight Landbird Conservation Plan: 2016 Revision for Canada and Continental United States. Partners in Flight Science Committee. http://www.partnersinflight.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/pif-continental-plan-final-spread-single.pdf

  • Sauer, John R., Daniel K. Niven, James E. Hines, David J. Ziolkowski Jr., Keith L. Pardieck, Jane E. Fallon, and William A. Link. 2017. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015. Version 12.23.2015. Laurel, MD: U.S. Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. https://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/