Kenn Kaufman explains how the tyrant flycatcher family got its name

6/25/2014 | 1

Eastern Kingbird by crayne.

Eastern Kingbird by crayne.

Contributing Editor Kenn Kaufman provides tips for identifying birds in every issue of BirdWatching. In our August 2014 issue, he told what to look for to identify Buff-breasted and Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Greater Pewee, and Thick-billed Kingbird — flycatchers of the Southwest. He also included this explication of the word tyrannus:

A name like tyrannulet, or little tyrant, leads to questions about how the tyrant flycatcher family got that name.

The Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus, who invented the system of scientific names in use today, gave the species name tyrannus to Eastern Kingbird (above) in 1758. The genus Tyrannus was established in 1799, making Eastern Kingbird’s full name Tyrannus tyrannus, and the name of the family Tyrannidae was based on that. In the 20th century, authors choosing English names for all the tropical flycatchers coined many terms like tyrannulet, pygmy-tyrant, and so on.

The name tyrannus seems appropriate for kingbirds, which are fearless in chasing much larger birds from their nests. But as a Swedish friend pointed out to me, Carl Linnaeus never saw an Eastern Kingbird in life — he saw only stuffed specimens. So did he think of it as a “king” bird because of the concealed red “crown” feathers on its head? If that were true, the bird’s tyrannical behavior would be purely a coincidence.

Actually, although Linnaeus never saw a living Eastern Kingbird, he had read about it — in Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands. In the first volume, published in 1731, Catesby gave a perfect description of the bird that he called The Tyrant. He was a superb naturalist, and Linnaeus relied on his observations. As a result, scores of related species are called tyrants today. — Kenn Kaufman

Contributing Editor Kenn Kaufman.

Contributing Editor Kenn Kaufman.

About Kenn Kaufman

Kenn Kaufman is naturalist, artist, conservationist, speaker, and author of many books, including the Kaufman Field Guide series and the beloved memoir Kingbird Highway. In August 2013 he was elected a Fellow of the American Ornithologists’ Union. His column “ID Tips,” featuring the photographs of Brian E. Small, appears in every issue of BirdWatching. The article above is an excerpt of a column that ran in our August 2014 issue. Subscribe.

Read other articles by and about Kenn Kaufman.


  • Virago

    Thank you! I was wondering about the “tyrant” name…