Another of the species most common in Mexico but that reaches the U.S. in southern Texas, the Couch’s Kingbird was long thought to be a subspecies of the Tropical Kingbird. Couch’s Kingbirds are largely non-migratory, except in Texas where southward movements in winter are common.
A member of the Tyrannid flycatchers, the Couch’s Kingbird shares the behavior of aggressive nest defense with other members of its genus. This behavior is sometimes exploited by other species, such as Atamira Orioles, which sometimes nest near kingbirds and may benefit from the kingbirds’ defensive behaviors toward grackles and cowbirds.
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Description of the Couch’s Kingbird
The Couch’s Kingbird has greenish upperparts, a gray head, yellow underparts, and a black tail. Length: 9 in. Wingspan: 16 in.
Seasonal change in appearance
Juveniles are similar to adults.
Riparian woodlands and open country with scattered trees.
Forages by flying from a perch to capture flying insects.
Breeds in south Texas and occurs south to Central America.
Adults often hover to glean nesting material when constructing a nest.
Nest material may be taken from previous nests when constructing a new nest.
The calls consists of a “kip” or a shrill “tzeeer”.
The Western Kingbird has a dark tail with white outer tail feathers.
Tropical Kingbirds have longer, thinner bills and grayer backs. The two were preciously considered the same species. Best identfied by voice.
The nest is a cup of twigs, moss, and weeds placed on a horizontal tree limb.
Color: Pinkish-buff with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
– Young hatch at 14-16 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) 14-21 days after hatching but remain with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Couch’s Kingbird
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Couch’s Kingbird – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written. NOTE: the Couch’s and Tropical Kingbird were considered the the sames species at the time the Bent information was written.
TYRANNUS MELANCHOLICUS COUCI Baird
Couch’s kingbird is the name of one of the northern races of a widely distributed species that ranges through Central and South America. Its breeding range extends from the valley of the lower Rio Grande in southern Texas southward through northeastern Mexico to Veracruz and Puebla.
It is a large, pale race of the species; in comparing it with Lichtenstein’s kingbird, the more southern race, Ridgway (1907) says: “Similar to the lighter colored examples of T. m. satrapa but decidedly larger, grayish brown of tail and wings paler, chin and upper throat more purely white, color of chest more yellowish, and ‘mantle’ more uniformly yellowish olive-green.”
At the time that Baird described this bird (Baird, Cassin, and Lawrence, 1860), it had not been recorded north of the Mexican border, though it was supposed to range north to the valley of the Rio Grande in Mexico. To George B. Sennett (1878) belongs the honor of adding it to our fauna; he writes: “On May 8th, I saw a number of this species at Lomita Ranch, on the ebony-trees. Three were shot, but only one secured, the others being lost in the tall grass and thickets. At this point is the finest grove of ebonies I saw on the river. On the hillside, back of the buildings, they overlook the large resaca, then filled with tasseled corn. It was the tops of these grand old trees that these Flycatchers loved, and so persistent were they in staying there that I thought they were going to settle in the neighborhood for the season. There was a company of some six or eight scattered about.”
When I visited southern Texas, in 1923, we found Couch’s kingbird fairly common during May in Cameron and Hidalgo Counties, where it was breeding. It was one of the characteristic birds of the chaparral, where it was often seen, and oftener heard, in that pigmy forest of mesquite, ebony, retama, granjena, persimmon, madrona, and shittim wood, with an undergrowth of various thorny bushes, such as the fragrant cat’s-claw, round-flowered devil’s-claw, and that thorniest of all thorny bushes, the Corona christi. A fully fledged young, evidently recently from the nest, was discovered on May 23; its noisy parents were making a great demonstration of anxiety over it. But we did not discover its nest.
Nesting: Mr. Sennett’s collector, Mr. Bourbois, took what was probably the first set of eggs of this kingbird to be taken north of the Mexican boundary. It was taken, with the parent birds, at Lomita Ranch, on the Rio Grande, Texas, in 1881. Mr. Sennett (1884) describes the nest as follows: “The nest was situated .some twenty feet from the ground, on a small lateral branch of a large elm, in a fine grove not far from the houses of the ranch. It is composed of small elm twigs, with a little Spanish moss and a few branchlets and leaves of the growing elm intermixed. The sides of the nest are lined with fine rootlets, the bottom with the black hairlike heart of the Spanish moss. The outside diameter is 6 inches, and the depth 2 inches. The inside diameter is 3 inches, and the depth 1.25 inches.”
A set of five eggs in my collection was taken in Tamaulipas, Mexico, on May 6, 1895, by or for Frank B. Armstrong; the nest was said to be made of Spanish moss, strips of bark, and plant down; it was placed near the end of a limb of a tree in open woods and only 8 feet from the ground.
Eggs: Couch’s kingbird evidently lays three to five eggs, oftener three or four. While showing the usual kingbird characteristics, they are usually distinctive. Mr. Sennett (1884), in describing his first set, says that they “are quite distinct in form, size, and groundcolor from any others I have seen. The blotches, too, are more numerous and smaller. The large end is very round, and the small end quite pointed. * * * The ground-color is a rich buff. The general color of the blotches is similar to that of the Kingbird’s eggs, and their distribution irregular over the entire egg, but massed about the greater diameter. If this set proves to be typical I should have no trouble in selecting the eggs of this species from any number of eggs of other species of the genus.~’ Based on a study of 13 eggs in the United States National Museum collection, Major Bendire (1895) says: “The ground color of the eggs is a delicate creamy pink, and they are moderately well blotched and spotted with chocolate, claret brown, heliotrope purple, and lavender. These markings are, in some instances, scattered pretty evenly over the entire surface of the egg; in others they are mainly confined to the larger end. They are readily distinguishable from the eggs of the balance of our Kingbirds by their peculiar ground color, while their markings are very similar to those found on the eggs of the other species of this family. The shell is close-grained and rather strong, and in shape the eggs are generally ovate or elongate ovate.”
The measurements of 43 eggs aver age 24.8 by 18.4 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure p27.2 by 19.7, 22.6 by 19.0, and 23.4 by 17.0 millimeters.
Plumages: As the plumages of this race seem to correspond very closely to those of Lichtenstein’s kingbird, the reader is referred to the remarks on this subject under that race, on which we have more information.
Food and behavior: I can find nothing recorded on the food of this subspecies, which probably does not differ materially from that of the other tyrant flycatchers of this genus. Mr. Sennett (1878) found Couch’s kingbirds associated with common eastern kingbirds in the tops of the large ebony trees, where they were doubtless in pursuit of flying insects. He “did not find them shy, for after our firing they would almost immediately return to the same trees.” The birds that we saw in Texas were very noisy and apparently quite aggressive.
Field marks: Couch’s kingbird bears a superficial resemblance to Cassin’s, and to a less degree to the Arkansas kingbird, though the white outer webs of the outer tail feathers of the latter, which the former two do not have, should eliminate any confusion. Couch’s is much like Cassin’s on the upper parts, but the tail is browner in Couch’s and blacker in Cassin’s. In Cassin’s only a small part of the chin is white, the throat and chest being extensively gray, “light neutral gray” to “pale neutral gray,” and the rest of the under parts are paler yellow, “lemon yellow” to “pinard yellow”; whereas in Couch’s the chin and whole throat are extensively white, and the under parts are a deep, rich “lemon chrome” or “empire yellow,” slightly tinged with olive or olive-gray on the chest. These differences in color patterns should enable the observer to distinguish any of the subspecies of melancho~icu8 from voclferan8.
Range: Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas and northeastern Mexico.
While there are several races of this species in South and Central America and in the West Indies, this is the only form that is a regular visitor to the United States. Its range extends north to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas (Lomita and Brownsville); and from this district south through eastern Mexico; Nuevo Leon (Ceralvo, Monterey, and Rio San Juan); Tamaulipas (Matamoros, Sierra Madre, Aldama, Altamira, and Tampico); to Veracruz (Papantla, Jalapa, and Orizaba).
In winter it appears to withdraw entirely from the Texas area, but at this season it is found in northern Neuvo Leon (Ceralvo) and Tamaulipas (Matamoros). Early dates of spring arrival in Texas are: Brownsville, March 12, and Hidalgo, March 21. No dates of fall departure are available.
Casual records: A specimen of 2′. m. couchi taken at Kerrville, Tex., on September 11, 1908, is the most northerly record for this race. The west Mexican kingbird (T. in.. occidentalis) has been recorded twice in the United States: A specimen taken at Fort Lowell, Ariz., on May 12, 1905, and one collected in Jefferson County, Wash., on November 18, 1916. Another race of this species, known as Lichtenstein’s kingbird (T. m. ch7oronotw~) , also has been recorded on two occasions at widely separated points. One was collected at Scarborough, Maine, on October 31, 1915, and another was taken at French’s Beach, British Columbia, in February 1923. Reexamination of the latter specimen would probably prove it to be the west Mexican race, occidentalis.
Egg dates: Arizona: 2 records, May 11 and June 13.
Mexico: 16 records, April 6 to July 28; 8 records, June 6 to 14, indicating the height of the season.
Texas: 5 records, May 7 to 21.
TYRANNUS MELANCHOLICUS CHLORONOTUS Berlepsch
The normal range of this subspecies is from southern Veracruz, Mexico, southward to Colombia, Venezuela, and the lower Amazon Valley in Brazil. But, strangely enough, there seem to be no records of its occurrence in any part of t.he Southern United States; and still more strangely, its inclusion in our Check-list is based on two widely separated records of occurrence in Maine and on Vancouver Island, far remote from its normal habitat. Arthur H. Norton (1916) reported: “On October 31, 1915, Mr. George Oliver observed this stranger near his house in Scarborough, and secured it for the collection of the Portland Society of Natural History. Mr. Oliver said that it was seen the day before it was taken, and was thought to have been a shrike. Upon reaching the identification given, it was sent to the United States National Museum, where it was confirmed by Mr. H. C. Oberholser, and Mr. Robert Ridgway. The bird was a young male, in very good condition. * * ~~ should be recalled in connection with this waif that two very intense tropical cyclones visited the United States, one in August, the other in September, 1915.”
The second specimen “was collected at French’s Beach, Renfrew District, Vancouver Island, in February 1923 by J. G. French.” This bird was identified by Maj. Allan Brooks, through the interest of J. A. Munro; and it was suggested that “it may have strayed so far north through the medium of a steamer” (Kermode, 1928).
A. J. van Rossem (Dickey and van Rossem, 1938) says that, in El Salvador, it is a “common resident of open or semiwooded country in the Arid Lower Tropical Zone. The species is most numerous on the coastal plain and in the lower foothills and only rarely straggles to an elevation of 4,500 feet. * * * Lichtenstein’s kingbirds are generally distributed over open country everywhere in the lower levels~and may, locally, be very common indeed. Such places as Golima and Divisadero, where much of the terrain is tree-dotted agricultural land, are eminently suited to their needs, and they were very numerous in both localities. They are much less common in wooded areas such as Lake Olomega and Puerto del Triunfo, where their spheres of activity are necessarily limited to clearings or waterfronts.”
Nesting: The same observer says that “the nests differ greatly from the bulky, padded structures of the northern species. One found at Zapotit~n on June 12, 1912, was placed six feet from the ground in the foliage of a horizontal branch of a small mimosa tree. It was so thin arid so poorly constructed that the three eggs could easily be seen from below. The body was of small twigs, and the nest cup was lined with fine round grasses. Another in axi almost exactly similar situation, found at Lake Guija May 28, 1927, was somewhat better built, for its contents could not be seen from below. Like many other native species this one often t.akes advantage of wasps’ nests by placing its own home close by.”
Eggs: There is a set of four eggs in the Thayer collection in Cambridge. These are ovate and show a slight gloss. The ground cQlor is characteristic of the species, varying from cream-white to pale “seashell pink”; they are marked much like other kingbirds’ eggs with the same colors, and the spots are mainly grouped about the larger end. The measurements of 9 eggs average 24.52 by 18.15 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 25.4 by 18.6, 24.3 by 18.9, 23.8 by 18.0, and 24.1 by 17.6 millimeters.
Plumages: Ridgway (1907) describes the young, evidently in juvenal plumage, as “essentially like adults, but without orange on crown, gray of head browner (smoke gray or drab gray), back, etc., duller olive, yellow of under parts usually paler, and wing-coverts and rectrices conspicuously margined with pale cinnamon or buffy.” Mr. van Rossem (Dickey and van Rossem, 1938) writes:
The plumage sequences parallel those of Tyran>nus verW~atia and Tin-a,wttu vociferans. At the postiuvenal body molt a body plumage like that of the adults is acquired. The juvenal wing feathers and rectrices are retained, sometimes until the annual molt of the following fall, but are usually replaced either in part or entirely during the first winter and spring. The concealed colored feathers of the crown also are delayed in their appearance until the spring molt. The annual molt commences in some birds as early as the middle of July, and in one specimen is as yet unfinished at so late a date as November 12. About August 1 to October 1 is probably the average molting period. The spring molt is extensive and includes a varying number of rectrices. It occurs in February, March, or ApriL The degree of rapidity with which the dorsal plumage fades from ouve-green to gray is astonishing. Just after the annual and postiuvenal molts the back is uniformly a solid, bright olive-green, but within a few weeks becomes duller and by midwinter is definitely gray. New feathers coming through at any time of the year are bright olive-green and this, contrasted with the older, gray ones, gives a mottled appearance.
Food: The only information I can find on this subject is the report made by W. L. McAtee to Mr. Norton (1916) on the contents of the stolnach of the bird taken in Maine, which were probably not typical of its normal food except in a general way. These contents were “remains of at least 16 Muscidae, part of them Pa~lenia rudi,s, and part of a metallic kind, probably Phormia, 96%; 1 Soatophaga furca4z and 1 Syrphws sp. 4%; bits of unidentified vegetable matter tr.”
Behavior: Mr. vaïn Rossem (Dickey and van Rossem, 1938) says that “in general, these kingbirds resemble in habits their congeners of the north. The most noticeable differences are their comparatively placid and less pugnacious natures, and the very different character of the call-notes. Instead of the sharp, raucous clatter of sounds so characteristic of the northern species, the voice of chloroiwtus is subdued and at times almost musical.”
WEST MEXICAN KINGBIRD
TYRANNUS MELANCHOLICUS OCCIDENTALIS Hartert and Goodson
The 1931 Check-list includes this Mexican race as a straggler, based on a specimen in the Dickey collection in the California Institute of Technology, collected by Carl Lien in Jefferson County, Wash., on November 18, 1916. In recording this specimen, A. J. van Rossem (1929) says:
This specimen was purchased by Mr. Dickey from Paul Trapier as part of a general collection of Washington birds mostly taken by Mr. Lien. It was labelled by the original collector as “Ash-throated Flycatcher.”
The specimen here recorded Is somewhat soot-stained, but Is dearly of the west-Mexican race which differs from the Central American In having paler, less Intensely yellow underparts and slightly larger bill. Except for the darker tinge caused by soot-stain, it is very similar to two birds from Esculnapa, Slnaloa.
In view of the subspeciflc status of the Washington bird, it would appear that a re-examination of Mr. Kermode’s specimen is desirable. Logically, it should be of the north-west Mexican race rather than the Central American race.”
Since the 1931 Check-list was published, James Lee Peters (1936) has discovered a specixnen of the west Mexican kingbird in the Thayer collection in Cambridge; it was taken by H. H. Kimball at Fort Lowell, near Tucson, Ariz., on May 12, 1905.
And now we have strong evidence to indicate that this kingbird may be a regular summer resident and breeder in southern Arizona. Allan R. Phillips (1940) reports that he has collected both adults and young birds, the latter evidently hatched in the vicinity, near Tucson, Ariz.; and during the summers of 1938 and 1939 he and his companions saw other families of these birds on several occasions, “making a total of possibly four pairs present in the area covered in 1939.” Mr. Phillips writes on the subject:
It seems evident that the West Mexican Kingbird is a regular summer resident at the present time near Tucson, from May 12 to September 3 at least. The numbers present are not great. The birds have been seen by a few other observers~ also, including Dr. A. A. Allen, A. H. Anderson, Dr. Win. L. Holt, F. W. Loetscher, Jr., and Gale Monson.
The call of this kingbird is strikingly different from those of the three northern kingblrds, being of a metallic rather than a throaty quality. It consists of a rapid series of short, staccato notes In an ascending, high-pitched series, and might be rendered as pit: it-At: it: it: it–it-it-it. In form the call somewhat resembles that of the Vermilion Flycatcher, but it Is much louder, sharper, and higher-pitched. Besides the call, the heavy bill, whitish throat, bright yellow belly, and brownish, emarginate tail all help distinguish it in the field, and the tall characters are obvious in flight even at some distance. In spite of these several easy distinctions, it seems probable that the birds have been allowed to pass for Arkansas Kingbirds by the few ornithologists who have entered their restricted ranges in the summer montbs.
We seem to have no evidence that the nesting habits and the eggs of this kingbird are in any way different from those of the other races of the species. The measurements of 45 eggs average 23.7 by 17.2 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 25.2 by 17.1,20.1 by 17.9, and 24.9 by 16.2 millimeters.