E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Wildlife of British Columbia

Tyrannus melancholicus Vieillot, 1819
Tropical Kingbird
Family: Tyrannidae

Species account author: Jamie Fenneman
Photo of species

© Mike Ashbee  Email the photographer   (Photo ID #9070)

Distribution of Tyrannus melancholicus in British Columbia.
(Click on the map to view a larger version.)
Source: Distribution map provided by Jamie Fenneman for E-Fauna BC

Species Information

The back, scapulars, and rump are grayish-olive, contrasting with the wholly dark brown or blackish-brown wings; the inner secondaries often have narrow whitish fringes and the remainder of wing coverts and flight feathers often have paler brown feather edges. The uppertail coverts and deeply notched or shallowly forked tail are entirely dark blackish-brown. The underparts are yellow, washed with olive on the breast. The head is grey with darker dusky-grey lores and ear coverts (forming a dark ‘mask’) and a paler grayish-white throat and malar area; there is a tiny, concealed patch of orange in the centre of the crown (usually visible only in the hand). The iris is dark, the relatively long, heavy bill is black, and the legs and feet are black.

Total Length: 19-23 cm
Mass: 36.5-40 g

Source: Stouffer and Chesser (1998); Sibley (2000); Wood (2006)



In British Columbia, this species can be distinguished from the much more common Western Kingbird by its shallowly notched or forked tail that lacks any white in the outer tail feathers (Western Kingbird, in contrast, has a square-tipped tail with white outer webs to the outermost feathers). In addition, Western Kingbird has a pale grey head (palest on the throat) and greenish-grey upperparts, whereas Tropical Kingbird has a relatively darker grey head with darker ear coverts (giving the suggestion of a dark ‘mask’) and greener upperparts. The upper breast of Tropical Kingbird is variably tinged with green, whereas in Western Kingbird there is a relatively sharp demarcation between the yellow underparts and grey upper breast. The bill of Tropical Kingbird is also noticeably longer and heavier than that of the Western Kingbird.

Although it has never been recorded as a vagrant in British Columbia, Couch’s Kingbird of southern Texas, Mexico, and Central America could potentially wander north and should be considered when identifying potential Tropical Kingbirds, particularly those that occur in the interior or at seasons outside of the fall and early winter. This species is extremely similar to Tropical Kingbird and is best identified by voice. Tropical Kingbird gives a rapid, sputtering twitter that is very different from the high, thin, nasal squeals: (towi towi toWITItoo) of Couch’s Kingbird that often include single notes (single notes never included in the calls of Tropical Kingbirds). Other subtle morphological differences between the two species include the slighter shorter, heavier bill of Couch’s Kingbird as well as the more evenly-spaced primary tips of males (primary tips of male Tropical Kingbird uneven and staggered). Another potential confusion species that has not yet occurred in British Columbia, Cassin’s Kingbird, is somewhat similar to Western Kingbird and is distinguished from Tropical Kingbird by its darker grey head, breast, and upperparts with strongly contrasting whitish throat and malar area, as well as its square-tipped tail with a narrow pale terminal band.

Source: Wood (2006)

The commonly-heard call in British Columbia is a high, sputtering twitter of sharp, metallic notes: tzitzitzitzitzitzitzi or trililililililil.

Source:Stouffer and Chesser (1998)

Breeding Ecology

This species is a non-breeding wanderer to British Columbia.
Foraging Ecology

The Tropical Kingbird feeds almost exclusively on insects, although it also consumes some berries and small fruits during the non-breeding season; some birds in British Columbia have been observed eating berries, particularly during November. Most insects are captured in the air, although it occasionally gleans prey from the branches or foliage of nearby vegetation or, rarely, lands and picks prey from the ground. Birds in B.C. have been observed foraging on flies and other insects on and around piles of kelp that have washed up on beaches. Flying insects are captured during bouts of ‘flycatching’ or ‘hawking’, in which the species will perch for prolonged periods visually searching for nearby flying insects, then dart out into the air to capture its prey and subsequently return to the same or a nearby perch. Most prey is consumed in the air, although large insects are often brought back to the perch and consumed there.

Source: Stouffer and Chesser (1998)


While there appears to be no strict habitat preference of birds in B.C., close proximity to the coastline is a recurring pattern among occurrences and virtually all observations are within 500-1000 m of the water (usually much closer). Individuals frequent a variety of habitats where there are both tall trees for perching as well as open areas for foraging. Many birds have occurred in coastal suburbs and parks where they are found perched atop backyard trees and powerlines. Other habitats utilized by this species include beachside thickets and forest edge, estuaries, islets, coastal headlands, coastal golf courses, and coastal agricultural areas.

Source: Campbell et al. (1997)


Global Range

Widespread and very common resident throughout most of Mexico, Central America, and South America (south to Argentina), with summering populations extending north into extreme southeastern Arizona and southern Texas. It is a regular post-breeding vagrant to the Pacific coast of North America from southwestern B.C. south to California.
BC Distribution

Rare, but essentially annual, post-breeding wanderer during the fall to the south coast. It is most frequent along the west coast of Vancouver Island, where at least one individual is recorded most years. Elsewhere on the south coast (southeastern Vancouver Island, Lower Mainland) this species is less frequent and does not occur every year. It is least frequent in the Lower Mainland, where there are only four records.

The Tropical Kingbird occurs in the province during a relatively narrow window in fall. The vast majority of occurrences are from mid-October to early November, with some birds appearing as early as late September and others lingering into late December. It is accidental during the winter months, when it is known from only a single February record (although an undocumented report of a ‘Western Kingbird’ from a Christmas Bird Count on Vancouver Island may in fact refer to this species).

Source: Campbell et al. (1997)


Population and Conservation Status

Although first recorded in 1923, this species was not detected with any frequency in B.C. until the early 1970s. Since this time, however, it has been reported regularly and now occurs almost annually on Vancouver Island, with multiple observations in some years. It is most commonly reported from the outer coast of Vancouver Island from Sooke to Tofino, although it undoubtedly occurs more extensively along this stretch of coastline but is not detected due to the inaccessible nature of most of the areas. As it is a non-breeding wanderer to the province, it is not recognized as a species of conservation concern by either COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada) or the B.C. CDC (Conservation Data Centre).

Source: Campbell et al. (1997)


Three subspecies of Tropical Kingbird are recognized, although only T.m.satrapa (Cabanis and Heine) occurs in British Columbia. There is a single record of the migratory South American subspecies T.m.melancholicus from the Farallon Islands off California, indicating that there is potential for this subspecies to occur as a vagrant elsewhere along the Pacific coast. It is weakly distinguished from satrapa by its darker grey throat, darker greenish breast band, and brighter yellow underparts; it may be identifiable only in the hand. This species is very closely related to Couch’s Kingbird of southern Texas, Mexico, and Central America, and the two species have been considered conspecific in the past.

Source: Stouffer and Chesser (1998)

Status Information

Origin StatusProvincial StatusBC List
(Red Blue List)
NativeSNAAccidentalNot Listed
BC Ministry of Environment: BC Species and Ecosystems Explorer--the authoritative source for conservation information in British Columbia.

Additional Range and Status Information Links

Additional Photo Sources

General References

Recommended citation: Author, Date. Page title. In Klinkenberg, Brian. (Editor) 2021. E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Fauna of British Columbia [efauna.bc.ca]. Lab for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver. [Accessed: 2024-06-17 2:00:31 PM]
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