The Western Kingbird and the Beetle

This will be another behavioral post – yes I am fascinated by interesting behaviors, perhaps overly so…

I found this Western Kingbird hunting from a barbed wire perch which is quite typical for the species.  It was so focused on its prey that it let me get quite close so I was able to get better detail of the feeding behavior than I normally do.



 1/500, f/8, ISO 400, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

 The kingbird has spotted prey on the ground




 1/1250, f/8, ISO 400, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

 so it flew down to retrieve it.  In this case it happened to be a beetle.  You can see it clinging upside down to the darker diagonal twig just in front of the bird.




 1/1250, f/8, ISO 400, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

 Here’s a highly cropped version of the previous image to show the beetle better.




 1/1250, f/8, ISO 400, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

The bird grabbed the beetle but as you can see it had reached “through” the twig to get it




 1/1250, f/8, ISO 400, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

so it got more than it bargained for.  The end of the twig broke off and wedged between the beetles abdomen and the upper mandible.




 1/1000, f/8, ISO 400, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

So it flew back to its wire perch and tried to figure out what to do about the dilemma.  It actually spent about 15 seconds just sitting there and staring at what was in its bill.  I swear it looked for all the world like it was actually trying to think its way through this quandary.




  1/1000, f/8, ISO 400, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

  Eventually it began to vigorously shake its head, as it’s doing here, in an apparent attempt to dislodge the twig from its beak.




  1/2000, f/8, ISO 400, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

But as is so often the case, the best-laid plans of mice and men (and kingbirds apparently) often go astray and it wasn’t the twig that went flying, but the beetle instead.  I’m always amazed at the visual agility of birds – it seems to me that this kingbirds eyes are focused on the beetle as it sailed through the air.  If so it’s an impressive feat to be able to track it so soon after shaking its head so hard.




  1/1250, f/8, ISO 400, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

But this kingbird wasn’t ready to give up on its snack.   Here the bird is looking at the beetle where it fell to the ground several feet below.  It dropped the twig (I missed the shot when it fell)




  1/1000, f/8, ISO 400, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

and flew down to retrieve the beetle.




  1/1250, f/8, ISO 400, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

 It then looked back up at the wire perch




  1/1600, f/8, ISO 400, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

and flew back to it to finally consumed the beetle.

I often wonder what goes on in a bird’s head in situations like this.  Perhaps not much – it may be that behaviors like this are all or mostly instinctive.  But on the other hand I just may be short-changing the mental capacities of my avian friends – after all some birds (ravens for example) often demonstrate some impressive mental gymnastics.


***Addendum:  I heard back from Alan Poole – Editor, BNA Online; Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  He said they were glad to get the pellet observation and that they would “get that in” to their Western Kingbird account.  He also asked if they could use some of my photos and I gave them permission to do so.      

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