Kingbirds are members of the Tyrannus genus of flycatchers native to the Americas. These small birds are well-known for their fearless nature and tendency to take on any threat which enters their territory.
Read on to learn all about the mythology, symbolism, and folklore associated with this unique genus of brave little birds!
Kingbird Symbolism and Meaning
Kingbirds are so named for their “tyrannical” behavior. Despite their small size, these creatures are fiercely territorial and are known to attack birds and predators far larger than themselves. Even humans are not immune to this behavior and many birders have anecdotes involving an encounter with a hostile Kingbird. (1)
What many people do not know is that the Kingbird actually sports a vibrantly-colored crown. Hidden amongst the usually black or grey feathers of some species of Kingbird’s crests is a small patch of bright red, yellow, or orange feathers. This crown of jewels is concealed most of the time but may be flashed at predators when the bird is threatened. (2)
So, the Kingbird may represent courage, protection, aggression, leadership, majesty, or hidden beauty. Like all flycatchers, Kingbirds may also represent industriousness, energy, and enthusiasm.
Kingbird Native American Symbolism
In Native American stories the Kingbird is often represented as a messenger associated with swiftness and daybreak. In some stories, the Kingbird is truly considered the king of birds, or even of the realm of spirits. (3)
Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, which belong to the Kingbird family, are sometimes considered to be sacred birds favored by the gods. (4)
Kingbird in Dreams
If you’ve been dreaming of the Kingbird, this may be a sign that you are facing a problem that feels too big for you to tackle alone. It is always a good idea to seek support from other when you need it. Remember as well that the Kingbird takes on animals which could easily defeat it. Even though its foes are stronger, the Kingbird overwhelms them with its confidence, persistence, and fiery determination. In other words: fake it until you make it! Dive in to your impossible problem without hesitation and things will surely work out alright.
Kingbird Encounters and Omens
An encounter with a Kingbird may represent an overwhelming challenge, like a Kingbird dream, but it may also indicate a hidden treasure. Like the concealed crown of the Kingbird, your situation may have a silver lining which you have not yet seen or noticed. Be patient and look inwards. Gather your inner strength and you may find that the treasure that awaits you is your own hidden talents. A Kingbird encounter may remind you to keep an open mind.
Kingbird in Mythology & Folklore
Kingbirds appear frequently in the mythological traditions of several Native American cultures. In addition to this, there are folk remedies involving the Kingbird, and mentions of this fierce little bird dating back to the Founding Fathers.
Native American Mythology:
According to a Choctaw Native American legend, the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher was one of only two birds to survive a catastrophic flood. The Scissor-tailed Flycatcher is one of the only members of the Tyrannus genus which does not have the “Kingbird” name. Despite this, these birds are most certainly Kingbirds by virtue of belonging to this genus. (5) In this story, the world was overtaken by a powerful flood known as the “Returning Waters.” When these waters came, the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and one other bird, a small species of woodpecker, were brave enough to fly high above the flood waters. The waters were so high that the pair had to perch upside down on the sky itself. When they did this, their tails dipped below them and were split by the churning waters, thus forming the iconic “scissor” shape of the flycatcher’s tail. According to the Choctaw, these two birds became favorites of the tribe and were rewarded by the creator for their courage, endurance, and ingenuity. (6)
One Pomo Native American myth describes how the trickster spirit, Coyote, destroyed and remade the world. In this story, Coyote sets the earth ablaze as revenge for being scorned and mistreated. When he returns to the earth, he befriends the birds that remain and takes feathers from each to remake mankind. With the feathers of the Kingbird, he makes a man whose role in the village is to awaken before anyone else and alert the village to daybreak. (7)
“Kingbird (kapintadatadaii) should always be the first awake in the morning and should wake the rest of the village.” (8)
Initially, Coyote is pleased with his feather villagers, but they eventually begin to disobey him. Angry, Coyote remarks that they are no better than animals and begins to punish them by returning them to their animal forms. He says this of the Kingbird:
“You shall fly around in the open country where there is plenty
of room and fresh air and shall fly down and catch bugs and grasshoppers and eat them raw. Your name shall be Kingbird (kapintadatadaii).” (9)
Another Bear Clan myth features the Kingbird prominently. In this tale, two sons of a village chief have their fates forever changed when the elder brother commits a transgression against the village. As punishment, this brother is sewn into the carcass of a bear by their father, and thrown into the river. Although his death would seem certain, the brother is rescued and hidden away by a river spirit. In the meantime, the distraught younger brother is beckoned by an old woman who names herself as his grandmother. The woman is actually a Kingbird who has transformed herself. She and her “grandson” live together for a time, until one day the her grandson began to hear the voices of the spirits. From the river he hears a chant repeating: “the one who pulls me from the river will become the chief.” Over and over, the younger brother hears this chant. Desperate, he beckons his grandmother and together they fashion several fishing nets which fail one by one until they produce one strong enough to lift the voice from the water. When they retrieve the source of the chant, the younger brother is stunned to find his older brother, who has now become a river fish from the waist down. He and his grandmother bring the brother to their home where he dies from thirst. After three days, though, he returns to life, stronger than he had ever been. Filled with joy and triumph, the younger brother transforms into a Kingbird and rules over the realm of spirits as chief, just as the spirit voices had promised him. (10)
Old American folklore often ascribes medicinal uses to various flora and fauna. In the eighteenth century in the Midwestern United States, various birds were thought to have the potential to heal certain ailments. In the case of the Kingbird, it was believed that eating the heart of this bird was a folk remedy which could miraculously cure ailments of the heart. The degree to which this was believed and practiced is unknown but it was most likely not a common practice.
I would also like to include in this section the claim that Native American tribes refer to the Kingbird as “Little Chief.” I have seen this claim in many articles regarding these birds but have not found any specific evidence or examples. Supposedly, the bird is called such because of its bold attitude. Kingbirds are known to mob and attack animals much larger than themselves when they venture to close to nests. (12)
It is perhaps due to this fierce reputation that the Kingbird received a special shout-out from Benjamin Franklin in his infamous letter bemoaning the appointment of the Bald Eagle upon the Presidential Seal. While it is a myth that Franklin specifically lobbied for the turkey as the national bird of the United States, he did criticize the eagle, praise the virtues of other birds, especially the turkey, and mention the Kingbird by name. Franklin wrote of the Bald Eagle that:
“Besides he is a rank coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district.” (13)
So, from the outset of United States history the pint-sized Kingbird’s reputation has been courageous, tough, and fiery.
There is a tale from the Brothers Grimm which is titled the Bear and the Kingbird. I’ve chosen to include it here because it is quite interesting and funny. Note, though, that Kingbirds are not native to Europe. I have been able to ascertain the likely identity of the titular bird, whom I believe is intended to represent the wren. Several European myths discuss wrens as the “king of the birds,” so this is likely what “Kingbird” refers to in this context. Although Kingbird is a misnomer in this case, let’s explore this fascinating story of the Bear and the Kingbird regardless. (14)
The story starts with the curious Bear entranced by a pair of birds’ beautiful singing voices. Bear’s friend, Wolf, explains to him that the birds whom he admires are actually the Kingbirds who rule over all winged creatures. Bear grows excited and desperately wants to look upon the Kingbirds’ palace. Bear and Wolf wait until Father Kingbird and his queen have left their palace, so that they can sneak a peek without scaring anyone. When Bear peers into the palace, though, he is shocked to find a simple nest full of unkempt chicks. “You aren’t the princes and princesses of birds! You’re just ragamuffins!” Bear cries out in surprise. Shocked and insulted the Kingbird chicks begin to wail. When their parents return the Kingbird chicks are too distraught to eat a single morsel. They refuse to ever eat again until Bear apologizes for insulting their honor. Frustrated, Father and Mother Kingbird confront Bear and Wolf who dig in their heels and refuse to take back their insults. So, Mother and Father Kingbird gather all of the winged creatures together, down to the smallest insects, to wage war on the four-legged land animals. Fox leads the animal army with his tail held high as a signal to the others. He warns them that if he lowers his tail, an ambush is afoot. Hearing this, Father Kingbird sends Hornet down to sting Fox below his tail. After a few stings, Fox tucks his tail between his legs and flees with the four-legged army not far behind. Even with the army defeated, though, the young Kingbirds refused their dinner until the Bear humbled himself before them and finally apologized for his insults. (15)
Kingbird Spirit Animal
The Kingbird spirit animal is generally found in outgoing types who have a tendency to dive into situations head-first. The Kingbird spirit animal is not the most thoughtful, and can even be a bit impulsive, but their hearts are usually in the right place.
People with the Kingbird spirit animal are outgoing and make friends easily, however they may lack tact. Their brash natures might scare off timid people, but this is not the Kingbird spirit’s intention.
People with this spirit animal can be hot-tempered, but this is usually because they are so protective of their loved ones. Never one to back down from a dare, the Kingbird spirit animal is hard-headed, stubborn, and very tenacious.
Kingbird Totem Animal
The Kingbird totem animal is associated with guardianship and protection. People with the Kingbird totem animal have a strong sense of justice and cannot abide the idea of vulnerable people being targeted or taken advantage of. People with this totem animal may be over-zealous when it comes to protecting others, but this is only because they care so deeply.
This can cause problems when the Kingbird fails to recognize the autonomy of the one they want to protect. Kingbird spirits must learn to let their loved ones fight their own battles.
Kingbird Power Animal
The Kingbird power animal is associated with follow-through. No matter the situation, an individual with the Kingbird power animal will always see things through to the end. Face to face with even the most impossible challenges, the Kingbird knows that true courage means sticking it out! This power animal is a source of endless resolve for the stubborn yet passionate people who embody the Kingbird’s spirit.
Kingbird Tattoo Meaning
A Kingbird tattoo might be chosen to represent the hidden beauty of this ordinary-looking bird. Such a tattoo may also represent the unexpected strength and courage that a person can summon when they are protecting their home and loved ones.
A Kingbird tattoo may also represent healing one’s heart or accomplishing one’s potential.
Kingbirds are the absolute embodiment of “tiny yet mighty.” Like little feathered Davids, they’ll gladly take on any Goliath which threatens their territory or their young. This attitude may have earned the the genus name Tyrannus, but like any truly righteous king, these birds risk their own safety in order to protect what matters to them. It is no wonder that the Kingbird has inspired so many legends and tales!