Think of the word tyrant. Who comes to mind? Ivan the Terrible, Atilla the Hun, maybe Vlad the Impaler? How about the Western kingbird?

It and more than 400 other passerines, or perching birds, in the largest bird family on Earth earned the taxonomic title Tyrannidae – tyrants. Also known as the “new world flycatchers” the family includes several species of phoebes, pewees (pronounced pee wee) and the South American swamp lover the Crested Doradito.

As to the family’s name – Tyrannidae or tyrant flycatchers – phoebes and pewees don’t sound so tyrannical. However, species like the western kingbird are another matter. The kingbird is no tree hugger and seems to be the ruler of the family. It may be that the aggressive nature of the bird during the mating and nesting season gave rise to its name and to its family’s name, as well.

Although it prefers to live a solitary life most of the year, when it comes time to produce a new generation, the western kingbird will guard its territory, nest, and young pugnaciously. Both males and females are aggressive, though males are demonstrably more so. Even though kingbirds are a diminutive 1.4 oz., they are not cowed by the size of an intruder nor by its dietary preference.

Predatory hawks and kestrels are attacked if they stray too close to a kingbird’s nest as are any other winged creatures and terrestrial creatures like squirrels, for that matter. Anecdotally, kingbirds will swoop down close enough to a human straying too near one of its fledglings to make contact with the bill of said human’s baseball cap.

The kingbird’s scolding chatter can be heard for several blocks and a flashy red crown normally concealed under its gray head feathers can be seen as it displays its ire. As summer wears on, the territory patrolled and protected by a kingbird pair gets smaller until it’s finally just the space in proximity of their nest or fledglings.

The tyrant flycatchers include species that migrate and those that do not. Throughout the San Luis NWR Complex, migratory tyrant flycatchers include the western kingbird and the ash-throated flycatcher, both species that are here during the summer breeding season. Another migratory flycatcher, the Say’s phoebe, is here during the winter.

Migratory flycatchers have wings that are longer and more pointed – a design that makes for more efficient long-distance flight. Non-migratory species like the black-phoebe, found throughout the refuge complex year-round, have wings that are shorter and rounder at the ends. Wings like that allow a bird to lift off quickly and have great maneuverability – important when trying to evade a bird-eating predator or when chasing a flying bug.

Many species in the family are dressed in rather drab browns and grays or olive-greens on the back with pale ivory, cream, or yellowish undersides. An exception is the brilliant fiery-colored vermilion flycatcher that has become a regular winter visitor. Male and females of many tyrant flycatcher species look alike.

Despite the diversity of more than 400 species in the tyrant family, there are some characteristics they all have in common. All flycatchers eat insects. They all have a short, wide bill with a slight hook at the end to help catch and hold onto their buggy prey. They are all good fliers and some, like the western kingbird and black phoebe, are masters at swooping out from their exposed perch to pluck flying insects from midair – a behavior called “hawking.”

To learn more about the tyrant flycatchers of the San Luis NWR Complex, join naturalist, nature photographer, and frequent wildlife refuge visitor, Steve Johnston, on Saturday, July 13, at 9 a.m. at the visitor center of the San Luis NWR, 7376 South Wolfsen Road. For more information call the visitor center at 209-826-3508, ext. 127.

The Merced National Wildlife Refuge (7430 West Sandy Mush Road), the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge and the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge comprise the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Its headquarters and visitor center are located just north of Los Banos off Highway 165 at 7376 South Wolfsen Road.

The refuges are open to visitors daily from one half-hour before sunrise to one half-hour after sunset. The visitor center is open Monday through Friday except federal holidays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

For more information call 209 826-3508 ext. 127.

A. Rentner