As I headed out on my walk, I noticed a Common Raven flying furiously towards me. As I looked closer, I saw it was being followed by a small bird – then two more. As they got closer, I realized it was a fearless Western Kingbird and friends that were in hot pursuit, their yellow bellies flashing in the early morning sun. The kingbirds undoubtedly felt that the raven was a risk to their nest.
In Albuquerque, there are both Western and Cassin’s Kingbirds. Western Kingbirds have lighter grey heads and white outer tail feathers. While it means nothing to a younger generation, I like to describe their song as sounding like a cassette player on fast re-wind. Ken Kaufman describes their song as ‘staccato sputtering.’
Cassin’s Kingbirds have a darker grey head, contrasting white throat, and white on the ends of the tail feathers. In the Albuquerque area, they are normally found in the foothills and lower areas of the mountains, except during migration when they can be seen anywhere across the city. Their song and call sound somewhat similar, with the call being harsher – kibeer, kibeer.
Western Kingbirds can normally be seen perched on fences, power lines, or other elevated perches. When they see a potential insect meal, they fly out to catch it, often calling during the process. Right now, they are feasting on the moths that are proliferating. Later, they will munch on grasshoppers. They will also snatch larvae off of plants, and if the insect population is not sufficiently abundant, they might eat berries, e.g. mulberries, elderberries or hawthorn.
Each spring Western Kingbirds usually arrive back in Albuquerque mid-April after wintering in southern Mexico and Central America. Their breeding range starts in northern Mexico, and extends from the eastern plains westward, with the exception of mountainous areas.
By mid-May in central New Mexico, they should be paired up and started to nest. They fiercely defend their nests from predation, often pursuing much larger birds like the raven chase I witnessed. In the past I have seen them chase after both Red-tailed and Swainson’s Hawks.
Their nests are woven cups, most frequently in trees or shrubs, like this one at Villanueva State Park.
I think I know which tree the kingbirds that were in hot pursuit of the raven have or are planning to build their nest. I have seen them flying down into the arroyo to catch bugs, but haven’t peered into the tree at close range because I don’t want to disturb them.
Nests can also be found on a variety of natural and human-made structures, such as the nest which was nestled behind a light on a power pole in Corrales.
Most years I see a pair build a nest in the crevices of a light signal near Osuna and San Mateo, and one year watched a pair of kingbirds that had nested on an electrical pole adjacent to a pair of Osprey. Since the Osprey eat fish, they were not worried about predation.
The parents will continue to feed the young birds for two to three weeks after they leave the nest. After that, the fledglings often fly nearby to explore, but return to the nest area at night. During the first two weeks in July, I often see juveniles who visit my neighborhood.
Western Kingbirds linger in Albuquerque throughout the summer and begin to leave during September, with the adults leaving before the juveniles.
Take the opportunity to observe and enjoy these spirited summer visitors.