Gray Kingbird

Tyrannus dominicensis

  • Version: 2.0 — Published January 1, 2002
  • Gregory A. Smith and Jerome A. Jackson

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Figure 1. Distribution of the Gray Kingbird in the Caribbean region.

This species breeds locally and irregularly along the Atlantic coast and north of the distributions shown, and winters irregularly south. It also winters in other portions of northern South America, and rarely in extreme southern Florida, southern Bahamas, Jamaica, and possibly eastern Cuba. See text for details.

Adult Gray Kingbird; Dry Tortugas, FL, April

; photographer Brian E. Small

A large, conspicuous, boisterous tyrannid, the Gray Kingbird is at home among the mangrove swamps of south Florida and the Caribbean region. Generally “tame” and tolerant of humans, it is familiar to those of the countryside of West Indian islands, where it is most abundant. It seems to have thrived as native forests have been destroyed, and its petulant voice and feisty disposition have given it almost folk-hero status. Local names derived onomatopoetically from its characteristic call differ from island to island, but rendered in the native tongue impart the same vehemence. The Gray Kingbird perches in the open, snapping up flying insects, thus paying rent for the territories it claims and for its harassment of family dogs. It often builds its crude twig nest near human habitations.

Colonizing mainland Florida from the West Indies, the Gray Kingbird remains restricted to coastal and Neotropical climates. In the West Indies, its habitats are open and dry, but generally associated with water, usually coastal. In the United States, it breeds along the Atlantic Coast as far north as Fort Caswell, North Carolina, and along the Gulf Coast to Biloxi, Mississippi. This species is transient along the Caribbean coast from the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico south to where it winters in the southern Caribbean and northern South America.

Despite this species' conspicuous nature, there are surprisingly few quantitative data on many aspects of its life history. Most accounts are anecdotal. There is, however, good information on systematics and geographic variation (Brodkorb 1950, Haberman et al. 1991), diet and food habits (Wetmore 1916a, Sprunt 1942, Lack 1976), and vocalizations (Smith 1966d). Roosting behavior has been well documented in Puerto Rico (Post 1982), and interactions with Shiny Cowbirds (Molothrus bonariensis) have been described in some detail (Cruz et al. 1985, Wiley 1985a, Post et al. 1990, Baltz and Burhans 1998). Although this species is not generally considered to be facing immediate conservation threats, impacts of coastal development should be quantified. The Gray Kingbird may also serve as an excellent model of the effects of global climate change on terrestrial fauna. Increased sea levels would almost certainly impact its preferred nesting sites along sea coasts and estuaries, and an increase in the severity and frequency of storm activity would have unknown consequences on nesting success.

Recommended Citation

Smith, G. A. and J. A. Jackson (2002). Gray Kingbird (Tyrannus dominicensis), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.