Yesterday a hawk flew overhead. It was a Cooper’s hawk carrying prey in its talons, probably headed towards its nest of hungry young in our neighbor’s woods. But it also looked as if something was riding on its back. As the hawk flew over our upper pasture and headed for the woods, a smaller bird flew off the hawk’s back and returned to our field. I recognized the white banded tail tip of a kingbird. Drama over — and enemy departed — the kingbird returned to the vicinity of its nest.
We often see a kingbird perched on our pasture fences, sitting ramrod straight with an immaculate silvery breast and charcoal-gray back. A kingbird turns its head slowly. Sharp eyes scan the skies for flying insects to eat or wandering hawks to chase. Sighting prey, it will sally forth on wings that beat quickly and shallowly, almost like a shorebird. Befitting its regal bearing, a kingbird has a crown. A small patch of scarlet feathers is normally hidden within the black feathers of its head and only shows up when the bird becomes excited. No doubt that red crown was on full display while that kingbird jabbed its bill into the feathers of that hawk’s neck and back.
A Contrast Of Styles
Last month on a recent bird walk with the Potomac Valley Audubon Society near Shepherdstown, we watched a pair of kingbirds chase a fish crow carrying something in its bill. We surmised the crow had just snatched one of their eggs or nestlings. Such encounters are relatively common during the nesting season but in the twenty-first century most of us miss the everyday drama going on around us. Contrast my terse, prosaic description with the fiery text that John James Audubon* wrote to accompany his superbly drawn “tyrant fly catcher, also known as the field martin or king bird” in his Ornithological Biographies. In the florid style of the 1850s Audubon wrote:
“Should he espy a Crow, a Vulture, a Martin or an Eagle, in the neighborhood or at a distance, he spreads his wing to the air, and pressing towards the dangerous foe, approaches him, and commences his attack with fury. He mounts above the enemy, sounds the charge, and repeatedly plunging upon the very back of his more powerful antagonist, essays to secure a hold. In this manner, harassing his less active foe with continued blows of his bill, he follows him probably for a mile, when, satisfied that he has done his duty, he gives his wings their usual quivering motion, and returns exulting and elated to his nest, trilling his notes all the while.”
Audubon concluded this passage describing the kingbird as a gourmet delicacy. He claimed that many farmers shot kingbirds on sight because they caught and consumed honey bees, writing “the flesh of this bird is delicate and savory. Many are shot along the Mississippi, not because these birds eat bees, but because the French of Louisiana are fond of bee-eaters.” Much has changed since Audubon wrote his Ornithological Biographies. No longer do we eat songbirds, which are protected by state and federal law. Even so, the National Audubon Society lists the eastern kingbird as “moderately vulnerable” to climate change. This species has lost 45 percent of its original range in our part of the Mid-Atlantic region.
*Author note: Audubon, always a colorful figure, has come under serious criticism as a former slaveholder, a habitual liar, a womanizer, and a fraud. Even the National Audubon Society has considered changing its name. But Audubon the man had tremendous fire and passion for nature and remains unsurpassed as a bird painter.
Doug Pifer is an artist, naturalist, and writer. He has a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Penn State and has been an editor and art educator. His illustrations have appeared in various books and magazines and he has been a contributor to The Observer for several years. He lives with his wife and assorted animals on 5.7 acres in a historic farmhouse near Shepherdstown.By Doug Pifer