Tyrannus tyrannus is the Latin name for the eastern kingbird.
The bird lives to its name. It aggressively defends its territory, even against hawks and other birds much larger than itself. I’ll never forget my husband’s report of being mercilessly attacked by a kingbird – the tyrant! – every time he parked his car near a young tree where a pair had made their nest.
Despite the unflattering moniker, there is something about the eastern kingbird that I find immensely appealing. Partly, it’s the appearance: Handsome, always erect, sporting charcoal head and back feathers with snow-white underparts and a tail that looks as if it has been dipped in white paint. Partly, it’s the sound it makes: a series of sharp, zeeting notes that instantly command attention. And partly, it’s the bird’s flycatcher behavior of sallying forth from a field stalk or sapling, then returning directly to the same perch after snagging an insect on the fly.
But mostly, I think it’s the surprising conspicuousness of the eastern kingbird. Most of the flycatchers we see locally – phoebes, pewees, great crested flycatchers and others – are birds of dense shrublands or forests. But the kingbird favors wide-open areas where it is easy to spot atop an old milkweed stalk or a fence. Those wide-open areas are not confined to the country.
Kingbirds nest in trees, usually smaller ones, in parks, golf courses, even along the Chicago lakefront. Before Northerly Island was torn up for its transformation into a multiple-habitat park, a pair of eastern kingbirds regularly built their sturdy, but not-so-neat cuplike nest on the branch of an oak sapling there.
The arrival of kingbirds along the lakefront, or anywhere in Illinois for that matter, is cause for celebration. The birds have found their way, without GPS, from the depths of Amazonia in Colombia and Ecuador, sometimes even from as far away as northern Chile.
In Barrington, you can expect to see eastern kingbirds during late spring and early summer at most of the Spring Creek Forest Preserve restoration sites, at Citizens for Conservation’s Grigsby Prairie and Flint Creek Savanna, at Lake County’s Cuba Marsh.
An encounter with tyrannus tyrannus should fill you with the admiration this species deserves and, hopefully, will not involve a tyrannical attack.
Barrington Hills resident Wendy Paulson has lived in the area for nearly 50 years. Paulson has a regular schedule of bird walks sponsored by Citizens for Conservation and the Audubon Chicago Region, in addition to being the former chairman of the Illinois and New York chapters of The Nature Conservancy. Visit www.citizensforconservation.org for information.