Friday, April 8, 2011

they're ba-a-a-a-ack!

I've been seeing my first-of-season Western Kingbirds this week. A close look would probably have found some last week, but I failed to take the time. This week they're in my face, active along the driveway to the east of our house, their liquid yellow breasts shining in the sun. That road is, aptly, designated by a sign as "Kingbird Driveway*;" the sign was a birthday gift a few years back.

Western Kingbirds are among the Tyrant Flycatchers, a large grouping of birds of North and South America feeding primarily on insects. The Western Kingbird winters from southern Texas to Costa Rica and is abundant throughout the Western US. Their annual appearance here (like that of our two species of swallow) coincides generally with the first warm weather and first big flush of flying insects. This is their breeding ground; they make simple cup nests on horizontal branches.

Kingbirds are "altricial" (as opposed to "precocial"), meaning that the young develop skills slowly and rely until nearly full-grown on their parents for food. Ms K and I once were treated to the sight of a line-up of four young (but large) kingbirds on a cottonwood snag, all loudly clamoring to be fed. They could fly, but just barely, and not yet with the level of competence needed to snag insects on the wing. Juvenile capabilities, over-sized appetites, busy parents.

*"Kingbird Driveway" honors one of our predominant summer birds but was also intended as an in-joke for birders, playing on the title of Kingbird Highway, a marvelously funny and inspiring book by ornithologist and conservationist Kenn Kauffman, published in 1997. Kingbird Highway, subtitled "The Story of a Natural Obsession that Got A Little Out of Hand," is a memoir of Kauffman's 19th year, and I highly recommend it. (Our driveway has one real literary claim to fame - a cameo role in Michael Forsberg's superb On Ancient Wing, one of the very few photos not of sandhill cranes in that book.)

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