Eastern Kingbird

Tyrannus tyrannus


Distribution, Migration and Habitat

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Figure 1. Distribution of the Eastern Kingbird in North America.

This species winters in South America. See text for details.

eBird range map for Eastern Kingbird

Generated from eBird observations (Year-Round, 1900-2018)

Figure 7. Relative abundance of Eastern Kingbird during the breeding season.

Based on data from the North American Breeding Bird Survey, 2011–2015. See Sauer et al. (2017) for details.

Figure 2. Annual cycle of breeding and migration of Eastern Kingbird in New York.

Molt schedules assumed from data given in Dwight 1900. Thick lines show peak activity; thin lines, off-peak.

Example of Eastern Kingbird habitat.

Favors open environments, but may use a wide variety of habitats opportunistically.

© Jean-Sébastien Guénette, Quebec, Canada, 10 May 2017
Figure 3. Night roost of Eastern Kingbirds in Santa Cruz, Peru.

Credit: Rosalind Renfrew.

Distribution in the Americas

Breeding Range

Breeds (Figure 1) along the eastern seaboard from tip of Florida, excluding the Florida Keys (52), north to New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia (53), and probably southern Newfoundland. From Florida breeds west along the Gulf Coast, and then northwestward from southeastern Texas (~100º W) to northwestern Texas (~103º W) (34, 54), northeastern and northwestern New Mexico, and in the upper Rio Grande valley of north-central New Mexico (55). Present in the eastern plains of Colorado, Front Range, and northwestern Colorado (56), but largely absent from central Colorado (57). Found in northeastern Utah (58), and north-central Nevada, and breeds east of Cascades in Oregon (59) and Washington (60). Several pairs bred continuously in south-central Siskiyou County, California, from 1977 to 1988 (also Lassen County; 61); otherwise recorded in California primarily as rare transient (62). Limited local distributions west of the Cascades in Oregon (Sandy River delta, Multnomah County) and Washington (Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, Clarke County) and in Puget Trough of Washington where the Snohomish River enters the Pacific (60). Abundant in south-central British Columbia (formerly on Vancouver Island [63], but not currently [64]), and northward west and east of the Rocky Mountains (64) into southern Yukon (65), possibly southeastern Northwest Territories, then all but northeastern Alberta (66), lower two-thirds of Saskatchewan, west-central and southeastern Manitoba, southwestern and north-central Ontario (67), southern Quebec especially along the St. Lawrence Plain (formerly on Anticosti Island [68], and then east to Maritimes). Northern range limit needs additional work. Throughout its range, Eastern Kingbird is more abundant at lower elevations (69, 64), but breeding records exist up to 1,850 m above sea level (MTM, unpublished data).

Overwintering Range

Breeding birds from widely separated locations (Nebraska, New York and Oregon) mix on overwintering grounds to overwinter in western South America and far western Amazonia. Most birds from Nebraska/Oklahoma and New York tracked with archival geolocators spent extended periods of time at two widely separated sites, but birds from Oregon did not; birds with records for two years were consistent in that they used only one site (1 bird) or two sites (2 birds). Individuals using two sites reside first in mainly Bolivia and western Brazil for ~100 d, then depart to the northwest to reside in Colombia, Ecuador or northern Peru for an additional 75 d (3; D. H. Kim and MTM, unpublished data; see Figure 2). Occurs occasionally south to northern Chile, northwestern Argentina, and northern Paraguayan Chaco (70). Rarely overwinters in Venezuela, Guyana, and eastern Brazil. Listed as common in lowlands of eastern Peru, and northern and eastern Bolivia (71).

Distribution Outside the Americas

Apparently, the lone Eastern Kingbird record for the United Kingdom was an individual photographed on Isla of Barra, Scotland, 30 September 2016 (eBird data).

Nature of Migration

Considered a diurnal migrant based on observations of large migrating flocks during the day (e.g., 72, 73). Mabey (74) suggested the possibility of nocturnal migration on the basis of nocturnal migratory restlessness (zugunrhue) by laboratory-reared Eastern Kingbirds. However, seems unlikely given that Eastern Kingbird is rare to nonexistent in television-tower kills of nocturnally migrating birds in Florida (75, 76), Kansas (77), Wisconsin (78), and Illinois (79).

Move in small to medium-sized flocks of 10–60 individuals (80, 81), that may enlarge to 100s to 1,000s when they coalesce before crossing water barriers (72, 52) or as they funnel through narrow passages (82). Flocks move overland through Central America and at times may stop at favorable locations for up to several days or > 1 wk (A. Skutch in 29). During migration, individuals vocalize infrequently and exhibit few agonistic interactions.

Timing and Routes of Migration


Most Eastern Kingbirds depart South America in April (83, 3; D. H. Kim and MTM, unpublished data), but an earlier presence in Central America (mid March) reported (84, 85); generally abundant in Panama up to second week of May (73). Migrants remain in lowlands and move along east coast of Central America (82) and archival geolocator data indicate most individuals returning to central and western North America make trans-Gulf flight from the Yucatan Peninsula or Isthmus of Tehuantepec to Gulf Coast of the U.S. (3; D. H. Kim and MTM, unpublished data). Listed as common transient in Cuba 31 March to 22 April (86). Fewer appear to migrate along east coast of Mexico (3; D. H. Kim and MTM, unpublished data). An abundance of Eastern Kingbirds on barrier islands off of Louisiana also suggest trans-Gulf movements are common (87). Birds destined for eastern North America depart Yucatan over Gulf of Mexico to make landfall along the west coast of Florida from midpoint to panhandle (D. H. Kim and MTM, unpublished data). Rare spring transient in Bermuda from 30 March–21 May (88), and Bahamas during April (89). Reports of large numbers on St. Marks and Dry Tortugas in Florida (52) support archival geolocator data in indicating trans-Gulf migration as spring route for eastern birds.

Eastern Kingbirds occasionally arrive in the southern U.S. as early as early March, but first strong wave of migrants carrying archival geolocators arrives by late April to mid May (3; D. H. Kim and MTM, unpublished data). Other data suggest earliest arrivals by mid to late March in Florida (52), early April (but most arriving after mid April) in Arkansas (90), the second week of April in southern Missouri and late April in the north (91), late April in Cape May, New Jersey (92), late April in southern Ohio and slightly later in the north (93), early May in Massachusetts (94), third week of April in Nebraska (D. H. Kim, personal communication), the second week of May in South Dakota (95), mid May in Oregon (96, MTM), and mid to late May in Alberta (97). Very rare spring transient in interior California from mid May to mid June (62). Migrants arrive later in years of cool and/or wet spring weather, but most males have arrived by mid May in Missouri (91, Ohio (93), New York (MTM), or later (e.g., late May in northern British Columbia) (M. Funk, personal communication). Arrival may be slightly earlier in Midwest (98, MTM) and later in the mountain west (MTM). Intrapopulation arrival dates vary over a 30-d period with males arriving before females and older birds arriving before 1-yr-old birds (99). Hence, arrival dates may be as late as the first or second week of June (98, 81, 92, MTM; see Figure 2). Relative arrival date of individual females, but not males, consistent across years (99). Arrival dates in New York have not changed over the past 5 decades (100).


Southward migration begins by late July in Massachusetts (94) and New Jersey (92), or early August in Ohio (81) and Oklahoma (3); early migrants are presumably failed breeders. Rare transient along coast and on offshore islands of California from mid June to mid October, with most occurring after mid August; also rare transient August–September through lower Colorado River valley of southern California and Arizona (62). Migrating flocks observed in Florida by mid August (52); few birds remain on territories after this time. Date of departure from New York has not shifted since the mid 1960s (100).

Main pulse of fall migration from mid August to first week of September (81, 94, 92, 52, 3; D. H. Kim and MTM, unpublished data; see Figure 2). Migrants observed in Dry Tortugas, Florida, by 15 August, and large numbers in Key West, Florida, by 30 August (101). Transient in Cuba 20 September to 26 December (86). Migration paths from archival geolocators often difficult to discern in fall because main migration from North to South America frequently encompass equinox, but all migrants carrying archival geolocators that passed through Florida completed a trans-Caribbean flight to Yucatan Peninsula or northern Central America; stops in Cuba a possibility for a minority (D. H. Kim and MTM, unpublished data). West of the Mississippi River, birds carrying geolocators departed from the Louisiana–Texas coast, and most committed to a trans-Gulf flight, although some may have stopped over in Cuba before continuing to northern South American (3). Some likely follow Caribbean coast of Mexico to Central America, but Lowery's (72) observation of flocks numbering in hundreds heading south over New Orleans consistent with trans-Gulf migration. All Eastern Kingbirds then pass through Central America. Recorded in Guatemala 13 September–25 October (83) and in Panama early September–late November (85), but most pass through Panama fairly rapidly between mid September and mid October (73, 102). Fitzpatrick (103) observed 20 birds at Cocha Cashu (11°S, 71°W) in Manu National Park, Peru, as early as 26 September; flocks were observed there daily from mid October (103).

From mid October–November, the Eastern Kingbird becomes exceedingly rare in most of the eastern U.S. and Canada; e.g., latest dates: 25 October in Oklahoma (104) and 4 November in Ohio (93). There are very few documented records from December to early January. The latest published records involve an individual present 27 December 1994 to 6 January 1995 in southern Florida (Lake Placid County) (105), and another with a flock of Western Kingbirds, photographed in southern Florida (Palmetto County) on 7 January 2016 (eBird data). A group of 10 Eastern Kingbirds was recorded on 3 November 1998 in northern Florida (Leon County); in the same location, 6 individuals were seen on 3 December and 2 birds were reported on 3 January 1999 (106); this is apparently the only record of multiple individuals lingering into winter months.

Migratory Behavior

Spring migrants north of Mexico vocalize infrequently, travel in small flocks (5–12 birds) (93, MTM), and feed mainly on insects in open fields or from utility wires. Flocks are relatively inconspicuous except when they congregate along coastlines (94). Migrating flocks are larger during fall (93), especially along Atlantic coast (92, 94); e.g., an estimated flock of 500,000 was reported in northeastern Florida on 28 August 1964, near the date of Hurricane Cleo (52). Fall migrants forage mainly in open fields (see Habitat) and eat both insects and fruit. The duration of fall migration is about twice as long as spring migration (56 d vs. 26 d) (3), partly because migration distance is shorter in spring (spring migration begins farther north). Nonetheless, assuming straight-line flights, individual flights of spring migrants cover over twice the distance of fall migrants (277 km/d vs. 127 km/d); rates include days when birds were stationary (3).

Morton (73) suggested that migrants pass through Central America more rapidly in fall (wet season) than spring (dry season). Northward migration coincides with the fruiting season Central America, and from March through May, Eastern Kingbirds are abundant in Panama where they fly at low elevations, remain in flocks, and are highly frugivorous. During southward migration birds fly higher and more rapidly, and when seen foraging, they hawk for insects (73). Morton (107) suggested that Eastern Kingbirds “bypass” Panama in autumn and head straight to overwintering grounds in South America, where fruit of Didymopanax morototoni are available. Use of multiple overwintering sites for long periods may be related to geographic variation in availability of pulsed fruit resources. However, unsynchronized temporal movements within South America and high variation in length of stay at sites (53–137 d at site 1, and 40–130 d at site 2) (3) suggest that factors other than fruit availability alone dictate movements.

Control and Physiology of Migration

Study of captive-raised Eastern Kingbirds indicates that migration is largely driven by endogenous factors (74). In response to equatorial photoperiod, laboratory reared and maintained Eastern Kingbirds of both sexes initiated vernal nocturnal migratory restlessness (zugunruhe) upon completion of Preformative Molt. Zugunruhe is greater in males, suggesting more rapid rate of migration which is consistent with earlier arrival of males at breeding grounds (99). Amply fed males gained minimal fat prior to start of zugunruhe, but females deposited an average of 3.4 g of fat. Males stopped zugunruhe after several weeks and began to spontaneously sing. Females isolated from males continued to exhibit zugunruhe, suggesting that male song is an important zeitgeber (environmental cue) to terminate migration. The presence of zugunruhe in a diurnal migrant species is unexpected, but zugunruhe is known to exist even in resident tropical species (108). Endogenously based migratory behavior is likely modified by weather and insect abundance in spring, while phenology of fruiting in fall probably determines movement and length of stay in many areas (see Migratory Behavior).

Habitat in Breeding Range

Open environments (109, 69); usually breeds in fields with scattered shrubs and trees, orchards, along shelterbelts, and especially along woodland edges in forested regions. More a "savannah" than “forest-edge” species (98, 110, 111), but given suitable nest sites and perches, will nest in many other habitats, e.g., desert riparian (112, 15), quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) parkland (113), recently burned forest (114), beaver ponds, golf courses and forested river valleys (M. Funk, personal communication), and urban environments with tall trees and scattered open spaces (K. Russell, personal communication; MTM). Drawn to water; often nests densely in narrow riparian zones (115, 14) and in trees that overhang water or in dead, standing snags surrounded by water (5, 6, 7, 116). Nests regularly in agricultural landscapes and forages over agricultural fields if nesting habitat (e.g., shelter belts) available (117, 118, 119). Distribution in eastern North America in precolonial times may have been limited to swamps, marshes, edges of lakes and rivers, and open, disturbed environments (i.e., large forest blowdowns and forest fires). In addition to physical habitat structure, distribution of birds in nesting habitat influenced by past reproductive success of conspecifics (15).

Habitat in Migration

Few data. During migration in April and May, Eastern Kingbirds were recorded on barrier islands off the northern Gulf Coast, where 56% of 174 observations were of birds in marsh–meadow habitats; shrub–scrub (15%), dune (11%), pine forest (10%), and relict dune (7%) habitats were used less extensively (87). At Cape May, New Jersey, fall migrants also foraged mainly in open areas (92). Spring migrants in North America consume insects, but during autumn migration, fruit figures prominently in the diet (F. Moore, personal communication; MTM). Although Eastern Kingbirds forage mainly in open spaces, the species occupies a wide variety of habitats during migration. Along the Gulf Coast, migrants shift to habitats where fruit is abundant; e.g., pine–scrub habitat accounted for 70% of 88 observations (F. Moore, personal communication).

Habitat in the Winter Range

In southeastern Peru, the Eastern Kingbird is found mostly in river-edge and lake-edge habitats, where the species forages on fruit in the forest canopy (103). The species never occurs in forest interior, but it does forage from canopy and emergent trees in primary lowland tropical forest (103, 120, 121). Forest is used more extensively than field or marsh habitats on overwintering grounds in Peru, Bolivia, and Paraguay (120, 70), but will forage from the canopy of scrub forest. Roosts containing hundreds to thousands of individuals were observed in trees in the plaza of Santa Cruz, Bolivia (Figure 3; R. B. Renfrew, personal communication).

Historical Changes to the Distribution

Opening of eastern deciduous forests by Native Americans and then Europeans after the 1700s must have benefited the Eastern Kingbird. Increases in tree density and availability of fence lines (for use as perches) in the Great Plains probably increased abundance throughout central grasslands and prairie provinces, but there is no evidence of a major change in distribution over the past 100 years. Reports of breeding in 1886 in Nevada (122) and in 1853 in Washington state (60), along with egg sets collected in Colorado (1873), Manitoba (1874), North Dakota (1873), South Dakota (1875), and Washington (1859) in the mid to late 1800s suggest a widespread presence throughout western North America (MTM, unpublished data). This is consistent with reports that the Eastern Kingbird was a common breeding species in northern Utah in the 1860s and 1870s (112), but less so now (58). Both Jones (1859) and Reid (1875) (cited in 123) reported Eastern Kingbirds as “common” in Bermuda in April and October, but this probably referred to migrants as no comment made of breeding.

Fossil History

No information.

Recommended Citation

Murphy, M. T. and P. Pyle. 2018. Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.