Beyond the Bird Feeder
By the end of July we’ll be looking at the “dog days of summer”. But for many songbirds, by months end the thought of seasonal changes is stirring and there is a restlessness about them. For birds, the August sun will be setting earlier and by then the days will have become noticeably shorter, especially to our north. But it is still July in the Central Plains and Midwest, and there is plenty of time to enjoy our summer resident birds before they begin their trek south, many leaving the continent.
Once again we encourage you to look beyond the bird feeders and enjoy the many birds that call North America home, if only for a short while. We are featuring three birds in this newsletter that can be observed in parks, around lakes, along golf courses, or any open green spaces. In Lincoln, these three birds and many others can be enjoyed while taking an easy stroll around Holmes Lake, or on the trails at the Pioneer Park Nature Center. Enjoy our summer birds.
The Eastern Kingbird is a large flycatcher found in fields and other open areas. They are common across the Central Great Plains, in fact, despite the eastern name, they occur from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In their summer range they eat primarily flying insects and aggressively defend their nesting territory against other kingbirds. But where they winter in South America along the Amazon River they travel in flocks feeding mostly on fruits.
Adult Eastern Kingbirds are a medium size songbird between 7 and 9 inches in length with a 15 inch wingspan and weigh approximately 1.5 ounces. Both the male and female have a black head and back and a dark tail with a white tip. Their throat, chest, and belly are white.
They are not only aggressive toward other kingbirds in their territory, but can be equally aggressive toward predators and birds larger than themselves, often attacking crows and hawks.
These Kingbirds construct an open cup nest of twigs, roots, and weed stems in trees located in fields, or at the edge of orchards and shelterbelts. Urban parks and golf courses are commonly used. The nest is generally located on a horizontal branch or fork of a tree limb about halfway up in the canopy. The female will lay 2 to 5 creamy white eggs that have heavy dark splotches on the larger end.
Once the young kingbirds have fledged the nest the adults will continue to feed them for up to seven weeks. Since the young depend on the parents to feed them for such a long period there is usually only one brood per season.
Eastern Kingbirds are the equivalent of a stunt pilot when feeding on insects. They capture most of the prey in an accurate aerial pursuit of dodging, hovering, swooping, and sharp turns. It is enjoyable just to sit and watch these birds pluck pesky insects out of the air.
Wingtip: An Eastern Kingbird, banded at the Pioneers Park Nature Center by Irene Alexander, was later found dead on the banks of the Amazon River in South America.
The Western Kingbird is a conspicuous and aggressive bird of the open country. It is common throughout the western United States and southern Canada. However the breeding range of this kingbird has expanded over the past century expanding into the Central Great Plains States, possibly due to the encroachment of trees into this vast prairie region. The introduction of trees in the Great Plains may have bridged an ecological barrier that helped the Western Kingbird to further expand its range. They have become occasional visitors along the East Coast during the fall months, and have been seen during the early winter months in Florida.
The male and female Western Kingbirds are a medium sized songbird about 9 inches long. Their head, throat and upper breast are a light gray, while the belly is a bright yellow. The wings are dark and the tail is square tipped with white outer edges. This kingbird prefers open spaces with scattered trees, shrubs, or tall man-made structures from fence posts to telephone poles. Common habitats of the Western Kingbird include grasslands, desert shrub, pasture, open savannas, and urban areas.
Western Kingbirds are monogamous, returning each year to defend their rather loosely defined territory against other kingbirds. The nest is constructed primarily in trees, but they
will also use utility poles, fence posts, and other man-made structures. A cupped nest is built of grass stems, roots, small twigs and bark comprise the outer structure, which is then lined with hair and feathers. Wool, cotton, and cloth have also been found in their nests. Up to 7 creamy white eggs are laid with heavy dark spots at the larger end. The female will incubate the eggs for 18 to 19 days. As the nesting season progresses, the territory of the Western Kingbird grows smaller until, by the time incubation of the eggs begin, is limited to the tree or structure the nest is located in. The young birds will fledge on another 16 to 17 days and will continue to rely on their parents for food.
Western Kingbirds, as with other flycatchers, will launch themselves off tall structures, fence posts, and tree limbs to feed on the wing catching most of their prey in the air. They will grab insects off the ground or from vegetation as well.
This Neo-tropical migrant winters in Central America, with a small population finding refuge on the southern tip of Florida.
Wingtip: A group of kingbirds are collectively known as a “coronation”, “court”, and “tyranny” of kingbirds.
The Dickcissel is a sparrow-like bird of prairie grasslands, primarily in the Central Great Plains and Midwestern states. Their habitat consists of tall-grass to mixed-grass prairie. hayfields, pastures, and roadside ditches. They can often be seen perched atop a stalk of grass that is waving in the wind, and reciting their pleasant call. In early Autumn Dickcissels will congregate in large flocks in preparation to migrate to their tropical grasslands in Central and South America during the winter months.
The male Dickcissel has a yellowish breast with a black triangle bib. This black “V” on its yellow breasts resembles the Meadowlark, only much smaller. He has a yellow eyebrow and reddish brown shoulders. The female is very similar to the male except she lacks the black V shaped bib.
As with most prairie birds, Dickcissels forage for weed seeds and grain products. They will feed on the seed heads of stalks of grasses, or seeds which have fallen to the ground. They also eat a variety of insects.
Dickcissels nest in shrubs or small saplings. They male does little more than to feed himself and attract a mate. The female will construct a cup nest slightly above the ground made of weed and grass stems lined with fine roots, grasses, and hair. Up to 6 light blue eggs make up the clutch. The female will incubate the eggs for 10- 13 days. She will be the sole provider of food for the young until they in another 7 to 10 days. She will continue to care for them for a short time before possibly have a second brood.
One thing is for certain. Summer on the Great Plains would not be complete without the song of the Dickcissel.