KING-BIRD, the Lanius tyrannus of Linnaeus, and the Tyrannus carolinensis or T. pipiri of most later writers, a common and characteristic inhabitant of North America, ranging as high as 57° N. lat. or farther, and westward to the Rocky Mountains, beyond which it is found in Oregon, in Washington (State), and in British Columbia, though apparently not occurring in California. In Canada and the northern states of the Union it is a summer visitor, wintering in the south, but also reaching Cuba; and, passing through Central America, it has been found in Bolivia and eastern Peru. Both the scientific and common names of this species are taken from the way in which the cock will at times assume despotic authority over other birds, attacking them furiously as they fly, and forcing them to divert or altogether desist from their course. Yet it is love of his mate or his young that prompts this bellicose behaviour, for it is only in the breeding season that he indulges in it; but then almost every large bird that approaches his nest, from an eagle downwards, is assaulted, and those alone that possess greater command of flight can escape from his repeated charges, which are accompanied by loud and shrill cries. On these occasions it may be that the king-bird displays the emblem of his dignity, which is commonly concealed; for, being otherwise rather plainly coloured—dark-ashy grey above and white beneath—the erectile feathers of the crown of the head, on being parted, form as it were a deep furrow, and reveal their base, which is of a bright golden-orange in front, deepening into scarlet, and then passing into silvery white. This species seems to live entirely on insects, which it captures on the wing; it is in bad repute with bee-keepers, though, according to Dr E. Coues, it “destroys a thousand noxious insects for every bee it eats.” It builds, often in an exposed situation, a rather large nest, coarsely constructed outside, but neatly lined with fine roots or grasses, and lays five or six eggs of a pale salmon colour, beautifully marked with blotches and spots of purple, brown and orange, generally disposed in a zone near the larger end.
Nearly akin to the king-bird is the petchary or chicheree, so called from its loud and petulant cry, T. dominicensis, or T. griseus, one of the most characteristic and conspicuous birds of the West Indies, and the earliest to give notice of the break of day. In habits, except that it eats a good many berries, it is the very counterpart of its congener, and is possibly even more jealous of any intruder. At all events its pugnacity extends to animals from which it could not possibly receive any harm, and is hardly limited to any season of the year.
In several respects both of these birds, with several of their allies, resemble some of the shrikes; but it must be clearly understood that the likeness is but of analogy, and that there is no near affinity between the two families Laniidae and Tyrannidae, which belong to wholly distinct sections of the great Passerine order; and, while the former is a comparatively homogeneous group, much diversity of form and habits is found among the latter. Similarly many of the smaller Tyrannidae bear some analogy to certain Muscicapidae, with which they were at one time confounded (see Flycatcher), but the difference between them is deep seated. Nor is this all, for out of the seventy genera, or thereabouts, into which the Tyrannidae have been divided, comprehending perhaps three hundred and fifty species, all of which are peculiar to the New World, a series of forms can be selected which find a kind of parallel to a series of forms to be found in the other group of Passeres; and the genus Tyrannus, though that from which the family is named, is by no means a fair representative of it; but it would be hard to say which genus should be so accounted. The birds of the genus Muscisaxicola have the habits and almost the appearance of wheat-ears; the genus Alectorurus calls to mind a water-wagtail; Euscarthmus may suggest a titmouse, Elainea perhaps a willow-wren; but the greatest number of forms have no analogous bird of the Old World with which they can be compared; and, while the combination of delicate beauty and peculiar external form possibly attains its utmost in the long-tailed Milvulus, the glory of the family may be said to culminate in the king of king-birds, Muscivora regia. (A. N.)
- It is called in some parts the bee-martin.
- Two easy modes of discriminating them externally may be mentioned. All the Laniidae and Muscicapidae have but nine primary quills in their wings, and their tarsi are covered with scales in front only; while in the Tyrannidae there are ten primaries, and the tarsal scales extend the whole way round. The more recondite distinction in the structure of the trachea seems to have been first detected by Macgillivray, who wrote the anatomical descriptions published in 1839 by Audubon (Orn. Biography, v. 421, 422); but its value was not appreciated till the publication of Johannes Müller’s classical treatise on the vocal organs of Passerine birds (Abhandl. k. Akad. Wissensch. Berlin, 1845, pp. 321, 405).