His fair-weather friends all flown, the mower mows alone

A baby kingbird fell from the nest and was fed -- and protected -- by its parents.

When I mowed my lawn the first week in September, I noticed my “friends” who were with me all summer were gone. This month I am mowing alone.

Mowing two acres of grass on a hot summer day is often a lonely chore but when I had a flock of barn swallows flying around me, it was more interesting. Usually, by the time I made my second pass around the yard, I had been joined by a half a dozen swallows.

The birds hear the lawnmower and associate the sound with food. They would appear from nowhere and begin their aerial acrobatics. They would fly behind me, in front of me and sometimes dived very near the ground. They were feeding on insects that the mower scared out of the grass.

Most of the time I could not see the bugs they were catching, but occasionally I would see a large moth get caught by one of the swallows.

The barn swallows have been following my mower for many summers. Last summer and again this summer, another species of bird has joined the lawn mowing feeding frenzy: a pair of eastern kingbirds. They had made nest in a large spruce tree in my front yard.

The kingbirds, about the size of a robin, are a handsome couple. Both the male and female look alike. They have a black head, white belly and breast, dark gray back and wings, and a white band can be seen on the tip of their tails when they fly.

The male has a small crest on the top of his head that he raises when he is perturbed. These markings make the kingbird easy to identify. It is reported to be the 10th most common Iowa bird in the summer, and they range across the state.

The kingbird hunts differently from the swallow. It hunts by “hawking,” that is, it sits on a branch and waits for an insect to fly past its perch. When it sees an insect, the kingbird will fly and grab it in its beak and return to the same perch and wait for another insect to pass by.

This feeding behavior is typical of the flycatcher family of birds.

The kingbirds in my yard seems to have learned my mowing pattern. One of them will perch on the pussy willow bush and wait for me to pass. It will then fly out, grab an insect, fly ahead of me to the lilac bush and wait there for me to scare another insect out of the grass.

This summer I watched them catch insects, usually moths, and take them to their nest halfway up a spruce tree to feed to their young.

After a July thunderstorm, one of the babies fell out of the nest, and it was unable to fly. I saw the parents feed it a couple of times while the baby was on the ground. The parents would “dive bomb” me when I got close to the baby.

The kingbird is appropriately named because it is a fearless bird. Not only will it attack humans, but it will also go after crows, hawks and even eagles to defend its nest and drive other trespassing birds out of its territory.

The barn swallows and kingbirds have flown south now. They will spend the winter in Central and South America, but they will return in spring . I look forward to their company next summer when I mow my lawn.


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