Tyrant parents

This is an Eastern Kingbird, Tyrannus tyrannus. Quite a name to live up to.

Their name betrays their nature. Fiercely territorial, they are fearless against intruders into their airspace, even eagles:

or Great Blue Herons:

Let alone a more evenly matched Belted Kingfisher (on the left below; the kingbird at top right has satisfactorily upset him and is moving on)

In flight their white tipped tail feathers make them easy to identify:

They usually nest in trees, but close to water they sometimes nest low down, like this pair on my beaver pond. They used a nest site from last year, either theirs or a redwing blackbird’s, and rebuilt the nest. The female is on the nest, and the male is standing guard, as he does for 50% of the time. Between them the nest is only left completely unattended about 11% of the time.

By June 28 she was firmly ensconced:

Incubation takes 16-18 days, so I calculated July 15 as the latest possible hatch date, and kept watch from my kayak, from a respectful distance. By July 17, something had changed. She was now sitting on the edge of the nest, gazing lovingly down, so although I couldn’t see into the nest I was fairly sure something had hatched:

And indeed the parents were arriving with food, first tiny things like little caterpillars, then with larger dragonflies, like this one on July 22:

They also catch bees and wasps, and kill them and remove the stings before feeding them to their young. They are kept busy, making an estimated 5-6 feeding visits per chick per hour, which would add up to 150 visits to this trio over a 10-hour day.

The parents didn’t seem to mind if I let my kayak drift closer, and I finally found a spot where I could see through the twigs, close enough for my zoom lens. The babies are thriving on July 23:

But they are definitely hungry!

Their eyes open at 4-6 days, and the sheaths that will be the proper feathers emerge at day 5, so this one below, quills on its chinny-chin-chin just p[okiong through, is well on its way, and is ambitiously trying to flap its minute wings:

Once the young fledge, they still need 2 weeks more feeding. And by mid-August the southerly migration to South America begins, and they will be gone.

But instead this story has a sad ending. Two days later, I returned to find the nest entirely empty.

One adult was still standing guard, but of the chicks there was ne’er a trace. Not even a feather floating on the water. They were much too undeveloped to have fledged, so I fear a predator swooped, and probably gulped all three in one mouthful. Bald Eagle, Great Blue Heron, hawk, Belted Kingfisher, who knows. That unattended 11% was enough.

PS: This is not an endangered species ( roughly 26 million in the US), but their population has dropped by 38% between 1970 and 2014. Factors probably include increasing forest cover as farms return to woodland in the North Eastern US (which is of course generally good news for our planet), and the plummeting insect populations that are decimating aerial insectivores.

7 thoughts on “Tyrant parents”

  1. Yes, a very sad ending. They did their best and they will try again next year. I would be tempted to take that nest away so they might build one in a better location? But interfering with nature is generally not a good idea? Any thoughts or examples of this to share?


  2. Must have been interesting to witness feistiness in birds. ‘Satisfactorily upset’ is a very good term. Interesting how birds just know what size food to feed their young. ‘Bird brain’ is so derogatory, when they are so smart. Wonderful story.


  3. I love the bright orange beak area. And the plummeting insect population is so concerning…it’s the base to the land food chain & so important….and all very interesting. I was fortunate to see a small praying mantis last month..one of my favorites.


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