Eastern Kingbird

Tyrannus tyrannus


Diet and Foraging

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Figure 4. Example of capture of large prey that are then eaten whole.

Credits: Pete and Gretchen Pederson.

Eastern Kingbird with prey item.

Diet is primarily comprised of insects, but may include a variety of other items.

© David W Foster, Florida, United States, 11 July 2015


Main Foods Taken

During breeding season, mainly insects. Diet supplemented with fruit of many species, especially as summer progresses (124) and during nonbreeding season (73, 107). A generalist feeder observed to even include small fish (Obserholser 1938 in 29) and small frogs (MTM).

Microhabitat for Foraging

On breeding grounds, almost all prey captures (75%) begin from perch located 1–4 m above ground (mean 1.3 m ± 1.53 SD, range 0.5–9.0 m, n = 49 foraging bouts) (125, 126). Main perches are tops of herbaceous plants or small shrubs in fields (127, MTM). Barbed-wire fence line and fence posts used heavily (128, MTM). Flying insects are most common prey, but also take insects from vegetation, ground, and sometimes water by striking and hovering flights (see below). Fruit also taken by latter 2 methods. Forages in agricultural fields, including row crops (soybean and corn) given the availability of perches (117, 118, 119).

Food Capture and Consumption

A sit-and-wait predator that captures mainly large insects in flight (129; terminology follows Fitzpatrick). Small insects swallowed when captured; large insects (and even small frogs in both New York and Oregon; MTM) taken to a perch, beaten motionless, and swallowed whole (Figure 4). Of 477 observations of breeding and actively foraging birds in Kansas, 406 ended in prey capture attempt and 71 were terminated by flight to new perch (125). Foraging rate averaged about 1 prey attempt/min (mean 1.3 ± 0.86 SD, range 0.3–4.0, n = 49).

Returns to same perch after short foraging flights (mean 2.9 m ± 1.58 SD, range 0.9–7.6, n = 49) about 50% of the time (MTM). Short flights last about 3.0 s (mean 2.8 s ± 1.17 SD, n = 11), long sallies usually end in new perch (84, 125). In general, prey size is correlated directly with sally distance (84). In Kansas, hawked 50% of the time (n = 406), followed by outward strikes (direct flight from perch to take insect from vegetation; 39.9%), hover-gleans (insect taken while bird hovers and searches vegetation; 8.1%) and perch-to-ground sallies (2.0%; 125). Aerial foraging decreases as either air temperature drops or cloud cover increases (125). Aerial hawking dominated foraging maneuvers of foraging birds in West Virginia (92%) (127), and Ontario (86%) (6). In Oregon (MTM), 267 foraging maneuvers by 80 individuals indicated no difference between sexes in proportion of foraging attempts that were aerial hawks (88.3 ± SE 3.00, t = 1.28, P = 0.206), outward strikes (8.7 ± SE 2.60, t = 0.80, P = 0.457), perch-to-ground sallies (1.7 ± SE 0.93, t = 0.43, P = 0.671), or hover-gleans (1.3 ± SE 0.88; too few data to test).

Kites frequently in the absence of perches (6). Orients into wind, barely moving wings, dips down to snatch insects from vegetation, and then rises back into airstream to continue foraging. As many as 10–20 prey capture attempts may be made in a single flight using this method (MTM). Also hawks insects from elevated clumps of earth in agricultural fields. During inclement weather (rain, low temperatures), moves into canopy of tall deciduous trees to capture insects by upward-striking and hover-gleaning, much like Myiarchus flycatchers (MTM).


Details from stomach analyses by Beal (130; n = 665) and Dick and Rising (131; n = 26). Beal's analysis conducted over entire breeding range, May–September: 85.5% insects, including Hymenoptera (32.4%), Coleoptera (25.4%), Orthoptera (11.8%), Hemiptera (3.8%), and Diptera (3.2%); also fruits and seeds of 40 plants. Beal (130) showed that most honeybees (Apis mellifera) taken by kingbirds are drones. Insect availability probably dictates diet composition and odonates become important near aquatic habitats (132); odonates are eaten by adults and regularly fed to nestlings (MTM). Kingbirds usually take large adult insects, and switch to small prey only when feeding young nestlings or when insect abundance is low (84, MTM). Large, whole prey also fed to nestlings, including occasional small frog if available (MTM).

Dick and Rising (131) compared diets of Eastern Kingbird, Western Kingbird (Tyrannus verticalis), and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers (T. forficata) from 2 sites in Kansas during July. Major prey for Eastern Kingbirds included Coleoptera (49% and 58% at first and second sites, respectively), Hymenoptera (32% and 22%), Diptera (10% and 2%), and Lepidoptera (0% and 11%). Dietary differences among species were likely related to patterns of habitat use.

In Kansas, mulberries (Morus spp.) are a regular part of adult and nestling diet (133, MTM). Species appears to eat less fruit during the breeding period in Michigan (21), New York (MTM), and Oregon (MTM), but nestlings are fed mulberries, serviceberries (Amelanchier spp.), cherries (Prunus spp.), blackberries (Rubus spp.), elderberries (Sambucus canadensis), nightshade (Solanum dulcamara; 84), and currants (Ribes spp.) (MTM). Overwintering and migrating birds exhibit substantial change in diet and consume much fruit, becoming essentially frugivores (73, 107). Morton (73) suggested that pace of migration through Central America is slower in spring than fall because of the greater availability of fruit during the spring dry season.

Food Selection and Storage

No information.

Nutrition and Energetics

There is no information on specific nutrient requirements, but several lines of evidence point toward energy limitation in early breeding season: (1) start of breeding is delayed by cool weather (11; MTM, unpublished data); (2) smallest eggs tend to be laid early in breeding period (May; 11); (3) females sometimes skip a day between laying penultimate and last eggs of clutch (8); (4) long periods (10–14 d) may elapse between end of nest building and egg-laying (134, MTM).

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

Yarbrough (135) measured metabolic rate of a single Eastern Kingbird captured during summer in North Carolina. Nighttime measurements in metabolic chamber at 10, 20, and 30°C showed this individual was in thermoneutrality at 30°C with metabolic rate of 2.18 cc O2/g/h (100% of allometrically predicted value). Body temperature was relatively high (41°C), and lower critical temperature was above 20°C, suggesting that energetic stress would occur regularly at night and on many days during breeding season.

Drinking, Pellet-Casting and Defecation

Never observed to drink water (MTM); insects and fruit apparently provide sufficient moisture. Both adults and nestlings regurgitate pellets of insect chitin. Defecates from perch or in flight.

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.