The employee housing area at Dinosaur National Monument is filled, perhaps unsurprisingly, with dinosaurs. Feathered theropods from vultures to swallows have been spotted here. Many species maintain summer homes in the trees that were planted here by the National Park Service decades ago, to beautify the small neighborhood we humans call home.
The birds that nest here have their own community, between and under the eaves of the human one.
The birds that nest here have their own community, between and under the eaves of the human one. Daily, we see mourning doves and Eurasian collared doves, Bullock’s orioles, magpies, starlings, barn swallows and robins. One of the most common is the Western Kingbird, Tyrannus verticalis.
These agile members of the flycatcher family have occasionally been mistaken for the yellow-and-gray female Bullock’s orioles, but with familiarity they can be distinguished by their dark, straight tails bordered by two sharp white stripes. Their loud, complex, chirpy calls fill each morning outside my window.
One morning last week, as I sat at the picnic table in the backyard of the bunkhouse, a particularly insistent call drew my attention to a shrub. Perched in its branches, in the heat of the sun, chirping its head off, was a tiny, fluffy kingbird fledgling.
I looked around. Surely its parents were looking after it, and this was a normal stage in the precarious life of a young Tyrannus. I waited and watched.
After a few minutes, one of the parents did indeed arrive, bug in beak, to give the helpless ball of fluff a meal. Then it flew off. I watched a little longer, then went to work.
The next morning, I sat up in bed and looked out the window at the animals. There’s always a prairie dog or a rabbit grazing, usually several of both. The first thing I saw was a baby cottontail hopping around the opening of a prairie dog hole. It flopped in the dust, shook itself off, and then hopped up the hill, stopping all of a sudden when it almost ran into a tiny gray bird.
It was the kingbird fledgling. The two baby animals stared at each other for a moment, then the cottontail went on its way.
It was the kingbird fledgling. The two baby animals stared at each other for a moment, then the cottontail went on its way. At this point I knew I had to get my camera. What other adventures would this little king find itself in before lunch?
Young kingbirds are raised by both parents, and as I watched there were indeed two grown kingbirds bringing insects to the fledgling. They alternated hunting and watching their offspring from the branches above. One of them always had an eye on the fledgling as it hopped and fluttered around the patio and dusty yard.
The parents, for all their work, could not always get their fledgling to eat the delicious food they prepared.
A big blue dragonfly, no doubt valiantly hunted, simply wouldn’t fit.
No worries, what the kid doesn’t want, the parent will happily enjoy.
Then the tiny Tyrannus was alone again.
Well, not that alone. All around it, prairie dogs danced, robins hunted, finches flitted, swallows perched and soared and perched, and mom and dad watched from the trees.
The little bird explored between meals, testing out its wings to see how far they would take it.
It would need a lot more bugs to fly with its parents. Luckily there was no shortage.
There are many dangers to a grounded bird in the desert. Coyote, rats, snakes and hawks have all been seen nearby. With such varied threats, the birds must constantly be on guard.
There is no concept of “friend” for a little king.
But that doesn’t keep some from trying.
What is this? Interspecies camaraderie?
Perhaps the barrier between mammal and dinosaur, between burrow and sky, can be broken?
Or a prairie dog could get pecked in the face.
No luck this time, prairie dog. That diminutive dinosaur doesn’t need or want a mammal friend.
And its parents aren’t really feeling you either.
Cowed, the prairie dog retreats.
The swallows have been watching from their own nest, and now divebomb the chagrined ground squirrel.
The neighborhood birds look out for each other. I once saw a gang of magpies, kingbirds, swallows and orioles all gang up on a raven that had wandered into the housing area.
Today, the prairie dog has learned a lesson.
And so has the young kingbird.
It has learned that it can make mammals flee in terror, like its ancient ancestors the terrorbirds and theropods.
Imagine what I’ll be able to do once these wings grow in, it thinks, as it devours the helpless prey its progenitor has brought.
Nonetheless, best to find someplace less… crowded for the time being.
With a mighty flap of unformed wings and scrabble of tiny talons, it climbs back up the trunk of the tree it was likely born in, where its parents now perch.
The grown kingbirds watch and hunt, watch and hunt.
Sleep, little prince. Sleep, and grow strong on bee and dragonfly while you dream of the flesh of Eohippus.