Tyrannus couchiiCouch's kingbird

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Geographic Range

Couch’s kingbirds range from the mid-Texas coast and Tamaulipas south along eastern Mexico into the entire Yucatan Peninsula including Belize and northern Guatemala. There is some winter withdrawal from the northern part of the range, in Texas and Tamaulipas. (Howell and Webb, 1995; Traylor, 1979; Wood and Paulson, 1988)

Habitat

Couch’s kingbirds are found in scrubby woodland, forests and forest edges, plantations, savannas, hedges, and fencerows. In Yucatan they are common in scrubby interior forest and uncommon in arid beach scrub. (Howell and Webb, 1995; Martin, et al., 1954)

  • Range elevation
    1000 (high) m
    3280.84 (high) ft

Physical Description

Couch’s kingbirds are medium-sized flycatchers. Plumage features include a gray head that is paler on the chin and throat and dark lores and auriculars, which form a slightly contrasting mask that is widest behind the eye. A reddish-orange patch on top of the head is frequently concealed unless raised. The breast is dull yellow with some dusky olive plumage. The belly is bright lemon yellow, becoming more faded on the undertail coverts. The back and scapulars are olive-brown and the wings are brownish. The tail is dark brown with a slight notch. The eye, bill, legs, and feet are black. The bill is large and flattened, proportionally large for the head. Sexes are similar in plumage but can discerned in hand by the presence of a cloacal protuberance in males (poorly developed), or a brood patch in females from March to August. Juveniles are similar to adults, but their coloration tends to be more drab and they have buffy edges to the wing and upper tail coverts. (Brush, 1999; Pyle, 1997; Sibley, 2000)

Couch’s kingbirds are similar to tropical kingbirds (Tyrannus melancholicus); they are nearly indistinguishable in the field. There are subtle differences in a few plumage and structural features that can be observed in the hand or with specimens. Some plumage differences include a slightly more greenish cast on the back in T. couchii compared to T. melancholicus, which is more grey-brown. Tropical kingbirds also have slightly more greenish tones to the breast. Two notable physical differences are bill size and primary length. Couch's kingbirds have shorter, wider, and deeper bills than tropical kingbirds. Couch's kingbirds also have a shallow notch in the tail, as compared to tropical kingbirds. While these features can be suggestive in the field, they are not dependable field marks. (Howell and Webb, 1995; Pyle, 1997; Traylor, 1979)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • male larger
  • Average mass
    43 g
    1.52 oz
  • Average length
    23.5 cm
    9.25 in
  • Average wingspan
    39.4 cm
    15.51 in

Reproduction

Little is known about the breeding behavior of Couch's kingbirds. Pair formation may be similar to their close relatives, tropical kingbirds (T. melancholicus). In tropical kingbirds pair bonding includes a nest site display. Pairs greet each other at or near nest by both giving a series of calls along with a wing-fluttering display. This display is initiated by the bird near the nest and the display is repeated by the incoming partner. The greeting display is typically only observed during breeding season, but has been documented occasionally in winter. The length of pair bonds is unknown. (Brush, 1999; Smith, 1966)

In tropical kingbirds (T. melancholicus), apparent copulation was observed in a tree, 6 to 7 m above ground. The male perched on or hovered just above the back of the female for 3 to 5 seconds, before flying off to perch in nearby tree. No extra-pair copulations have been documented. (Brush, 1999)

Little is known about the breeding behavior of Couch's kingbirds. Breeding timing varies from April to July in southern parts of range and May to August in Texas. Only one brood per season has been documented, with a clutch of 2 to 4 eggs, occasionally 5. Nests found late in the season are probably replacement nests from earlier failures. The length of incubation is not known. Eggs are subelliptical to long elliptical and cream-colored or buffy with dark brown or lilac spotting over most of the egg surface. Eggs are 24 x 19 mm in size. Nests are described as untidy bowls composed of twigs, weeds, strips of bark, and leaves, they are lined with rootlets, plant down, and sometimes Spanish moss. Nest sites are usually on a horizontal limb of a tree 8 to 25 feet above ground. (Baicich and Harrison, 1997; Brush, 1999; Kaufman, 1996)

  • Breeding interval
    Couch's kingbirds have one brood a year. Second clutches have not been documented, although birds may nest again if an earlier attempt fails.
  • Breeding season
    Breeding occurs from April to August. Nests with eggs have been observed from May 5 to June 2 in Texas and April 6 to July 28 in Mexico.
  • Range eggs per season
    2 to 5

Little is known about the parental investment of Couch's kingbirds, but the pattern is likely to be similar to that of their close relative, tropical kingbirds (T. melancholicus). In tropical kingbirds, females incubate eggs for up to 2 weeks. Both parents feed and shade nestlings from the midday sun. Fledglings remain together near their nest, often on conspicuous perches on wires or trees. The young are fed by both parents for at least 2 weeks. Fledgling success rate in Texas was measured at 1 to 3 birds per nest. (Brush, 1999; Kaufman, 1996)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female

Lifespan/Longevity

No information about longevity is available from the literature. However, other Tyrannus species have been reported living over 11 years in the wild.

Behavior

Couch's kingbirds are primarily observed either flying or perching. No other forms of locomotion are cited in literature. Couch's kingbirds are strong fliers and are able to maneuver in fairly dense foliage. They fly with stiffer wingbeats when on their breeding territory, similar to other Tyrannus species. Couch's kingbirds stay active during the heat of the day more than other bird species in south Texas. As with other Tyrannus species, Couch's kingbirds are aggressive towards other birds and mammals, mostly towards perceived predators or intruders into breeding territory. They will attack and strike raptors on the back with their bills. They may form loose migratory flocks with only limited aggressive behavior. (Brush, 1999)

Home Range

Territory size is not known, but averaged 5.3 territories in an 8-ha study plot in south Texas. Couch's kingbirds maintain territory only during the breeding season. They are more vigorous in defending territory earlier in the breeding season. Territories are most likely maintained by aggressive behavior and dawn songs. (Brush and Cantu, 1998; Brush, 1999; Smith, 1966)

Communication and Perception

Development of vocalizations is most likely innate and not learned. Calls of fledglings are recognizable as Couch’s kingbirds. The song is nasal, with slow phrasing and spacing and pauses between notes. It has been described as a breezy "breeer." Other calls are a longer "burry" phrase, or single "dik" or "kip" notes. Calls are given year-round, though birds are more likely to be silent during winter. (Brush, 1999; Sibley, 2000; Smith, 1966)

During greetings between mates or interactions with other kingbirds, the reddish-orange spot on the head is often raised. (Brush, 1999)

Food Habits

Foraging and food item selection is poorly understood in Couch's kingbirds. The diet probably consists primarily of flying insects; Coleoptera, Hymenoptera, Orthoptera, and Diptera have been documented. Some fruits and berries are also eaten, especially in fall and winter. Probably other non-insect arthropods are also consumed to some extent. Unidentified Couch's or tropical kingbirds in Texas have been observed taking small lizards as prey items (Haas pers. obs.). (Brush, 1999; Kaufman, 1996)

Foraging habitats include treetops, forest clearings, and openings in or close to woodlands. Couch's kingbirds take fruit from trees and vines, but generally avoid dense foliage. Insect prey is captured almost entirely by hawking, in which kingbirds fly from perches to capture flying insects. Flight distances are usually 3 to 15 m, occasionally 25 to 30 m. Individuals usually return to the original perch after flight. They occasionally hover-glean and perch-glean for both insects and fruit, and they have been recorded swooping down on prey items located on the ground. (Brush, 1999; Kaufman, 1996)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • Plant Foods
  • fruit

Predation

No predators are reported in the literature. Birds of prey are major predators of other Tyrannus species. Fox squirrels (Sciurus niger) may be nest predators in southern Texas. (Brush, 1999; Stouffer and Chesser, 1998)

Ecosystem Roles

There is no reference in the literature to parasites of Couch’s kingbirds, although several are noted in tropical kingbirds (T. melancholicus). They are often found in mixed species flocks of other medium-sized passerines and other frugivorous species during winter in south Texas and Tamaulipas. Altamira orioles (Icterus gularis) are known to nest in the same trees as Couch’s kingbirds and may benefit from the aggressive behavior of kingbirds towards intruding bronzed cowbirds (Molothrus aeneus, which are brood parasites) and great-tailed grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus, which are nest predators). Bronzed cowbirds are known brood parasites of Couch’s kingbirds. Adult kingbirds have been observed feeding bronzed cowbird fledglings, suggesting that kingbirds do raise cowbird hatchlings. However, Couch’s kingbirds will chase bronzed cowbirds from nesting sites and will eject cowbird eggs laid in a nest. Couch's kingbirds undoubtedly facilitate passive seed dispersal from consumption of fruits. (Brush, 1998; Brush, 1999; Rupert and Boyd, 1992)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • disperses seeds
Commensal/Parasitic Species

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Couch's kingbirds are sought after by birders and other eco-tourists. They may provide some benefits as consumers of insect pests on commercial crops.

  • Positive Impacts
  • ecotourism
  • controls pest population

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known negative effects of this species on humans. (Brush, 1999)

Conservation Status

Couch's kingbird populations are considered stable currently.

Other Comments

Tyrannus couchii was originally considered a subspecies of T. melancholicus. The species were separated by Traylor in 1979 when morphological studies separated the various populations into two discrete groups: one that had short bills with long 5th primaries (T. couchii), and one with longer bills and shorter 5th primaries (T. melancholicus). The two species are also allopatric and use different songs for attracting mates. (Smith, 1966; Traylor, 1979)

Contributors

Tanya Dewey (), Animal Diversity Web, Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Skye Haas (author), Northern Michigan University, Alec R. Lindsay (editor, instructor), Northern Michigan University.

Glossary

Nearctic

living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map

Neotropical

living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

agricultural

living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

altricial

young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

arboreal

Referring to an animal that lives in trees; tree-climbing.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

chaparral

Found in coastal areas between 30 and 40 degrees latitude, in areas with a Mediterranean climate. Vegetation is dominated by stands of dense, spiny shrubs with tough (hard or waxy) evergreen leaves. May be maintained by periodic fire. In South America it includes the scrub ecotone between forest and paramo.

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

crepuscular

active at dawn and dusk

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
ecotourism

humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.

endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

forest

forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

insectivore

An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

magnetic

(as perception channel keyword). This animal has a special ability to detect the Earth's magnetic fields.

migratory

makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds

monogamous

Having one mate at a time.

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

riparian

Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

suburban

living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

territorial

defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement

tropical

the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.

savanna

A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.

visual

uses sight to communicate

References

Baicich, P., C. Harrison. 1997. A field guide to the nests, eggs and nestlings of North American birds. San Diego, California: Academic Press.

Binford, L. 1989. A distributional survey of the birds of the Mexican state of Oaxaca.. Ornithology Monograph, 43: 1-10.

Brush, T. 1998. A closer look: Altamira Oriole. Birding, 30: 46-53.

Brush, T. 1999. "Couch's Kingbird (Tyrannus couchii), The Birds of North America Online" (On-line). Accessed April 18, 2008 at http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/437.

Brush, T., A. Cantu. 1998. Changes in the breeding bird community of subtropical evergreen forest in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas, 1970s-1990s. Texas Journal of Science, 50: 123-132.

Clotfelter, E., T. Brush. 1995. Unusual parasitism by the Bronzed Cowbird. Condor, 97: 814-815.

Fitzpatrick, J. 1980. Foraging behavior of Neotropical flycatchers. Condor, 82: 43-57.

Howell, S., S. Webb. 1995. A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America. New York, New York: Oxford University Press.

Kaufman, K. 1996. Lives of North American Birds. New York, New York: Houghton Mifflin Books.

Martin, P., C. Robins, W. Heed. 1954. Birds and biogeography of the Sierra de Tamaulipas, an isolated pine-oak habitat. Wilson Bulletin, 66: 38-57.

Pyle, P. 1997. Identification Guide to North American Birds. Bolinas, California: Slate Creek Press.

Rupert, J., R. Boyd. 1992. Semi-evergreen broadleaf forest. Journal of Field Ornithology, 63: 13-14.

Sibley, D. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds of North America. New York, New York: Alfred Knopf.

Smith, W. 1966. Communication and relationships in the genus Tyrannus. Nuttall Ornithology, 6: 1-10.

Stouffer, P., R. Chesser. 1998. "Tropical Kingbird (Tyrannus melancholicus), The Birds of North America Online" (On-line). Accessed April 18, 2008 at http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/358.

Traylor, M. 1979. Two sibling species of Tyrannus (Tyrannidae). Auk, 96: 221-233.

Wood, D., D. Paulson. 1988. Status of Couch’s Kingbird in Belize. Journal of Field Ornithology, 59(4): 405-407.