I wrote some weeks ago about the red-winged blackbird; perhaps the most common bird to be seen along our roadways in early summer. The red-wing’s sheer numbers, the male’s eagerness to display and his feisty personality make it the king of rural roadside songbirds. The season has moved on, though. A trip down a country road today would reveal very few red-winged blackbirds unless it’s near a larger wetland, where migrating flocks of thousands may roost. The few that remain along the road are no longer displaying or showing the aggressive behavior they did.
The red-winged blackbird may have abdicated his kingship, but a new king has taken over the late summer roadsides. This bird nested here in early summer, too, but only as widely scattered pairs. It shares the feisty personality of of the red-winged king and is about the same size. It perches on power lines and fences just like the earlier king did. At times its numbers appear to exceed even the red-wings. The new king attacks hawks, crows and other large birds just like the red-wing by landing on their backs while pecking and pulling their feathers! This new late summer king even wears a red-orange crown, but displays only when he’s mad. The new king’s attire is formal with a slate gray back, a mostly black head, and a white throat and breast. He wears a distinct white band across the end of his tail, not unlike the expensive white ermine hem a human king might wear on his cape. I really shouldn’t say just “he”, because this king’s queen is indistinguishable from him in her attire, as are his young princes and princesses.
The late summer king of rural roadways is the eastern kingbird, a larger member of the flycatcher clan. Large numbers of kingbirds currently being seen won’t last long. They, too, are part of migrating flocks that will eventually end up in South America. Flying bugs dominate the diet of the kingbird in summer, but by the time they reach their South American wintering areas these flycatchers will eat mostly berries. Many of the kingbirds appear to still be traveling as family groups, consisting of as many as six or seven birds. Several of these groups may be seen in a mile of rural roadway. They prefer to stay out in the open, but will be most numerous near wooded river valleys that they follow during their migration.
Large mixed flocks of migrating swallows have already shifted mostly south of our area, but you may still encounter some large flocks of barn swallows and tree swallows perching on rural power lines. Tree swallows will be the last of the swallow clan to leave, and will be the first ones back next spring. Mourning doves are at their yearly population peak and may also be seen in large numbers along some stretches of road. They may be perched on wires or gathering weed seeds and grit off the road shoulders. Although a few mourning doves remain with us year round, many of them are migrating toward warmer southern areas. It’s interesting to note that Eurasian collared doves, an alien specie, continue to increase in numbers. Limited to small scattered urban flocks only a few years ago, collared doves are now found in much larger numbers in both urban and rural settings. They’re half again larger than mourning doves and a lighter cream color. They, too, can often be seen perched on wires and power poles or feeding along roads.
Enjoy the variety of birds that can be seen as you travel around Iowa, and keep an eye out for a couple of more weeks for Iowa’s current King of the Road, the Eastern Kingbird.
Steve Lewka is a former director of Story County Conservation.