Kyle Seager had never been closer to the field at Kauffman Stadium than he was during last month’s 15 inning-game against the Baltimore Orioles. From the fourth row in Section 139 he could see all the plunging, diving and great catches.
And that was just the birds.
“They were flying all over the dugouts and right above them, and they would sweep down on the field every now and then,” said the Olathe father of two. “It definitely killed time in between innings.”
For at least a decade, migrants called the Western kingbird have been (ahem) based around the K. They’re back and getting ready to deliver up a new generation come July, perhaps in time for the All-Star Game.
Before a recent afternoon game, three kingbirds chased one another high over the parking lots. One ended up odd man out as the others snuggled in an ash tree near Gate B.
The guy who knows all about our birds of the diamond can be found in a gold shirt and nametag outside the gate, where as a fan assistant for the Royals he directs folks to their seats while keeping an eye out for misbehavior.
Lately Larry Rizzo has been calling attention to the kingbirds. His full-time job, by the way, is biologist for Missouri’s Department of Conservation.
A handsome species, the kingbird sports a golden breast, olive-gray back and black tail trimmed in white that flares for turning and cutting during a chase. “King” is from the bright orange head feathers that stand up when he gets ticked off.
The birds have become increasingly common in Missouri since the 1990s, and the flock’s schedule at the stadium is as predictable as the team’s: Arrive in April — first spotted this year on April 23 — from their off-season in Southern climates right after the players do. Mate. Hatch babies in July around the stadium. Return south in August.
The kingbird is hardly the only bird of note at the K. That’s not counting the nuisance birds — pigeons that deposit droppings and barn swallows that build nests where groundskeepers wish they wouldn’t. (Royals management, more interested in Blue Jays, Orioles or cross-state Cardinals, declined to follow our fowl line for this story.)
Birders have recorded sightings of American goldfinch, nighthawks, red-tailed hawks, chimney swifts, European starlings and mourning doves over, in and around the stadium. Turkey vultures, too, and not just at the end of the regular season. Kauffman is a top location for bird-watching, according to the birding websiteMyBirdMaps.com
Last summer Rizzo wrote of the kingbirds in the Missouri Conservationist magazine, “marveling at the ways this bird has adapted to my favorite game. Their foraging habits and schedule must be quite different when the team is on the road. At some level, I imagine they must be glad when the Royals begin a home stand and they see the return of the crowds — knowing it also means the return of the lights and the insect feast they bring.”
The biologist wondered how attending night games affects the birds’ internal clock. They “are not nocturnal birds. If play on the field runs late, kingbirds can still be seen hawking insects well after dark. How do they adjust to this schedule? Are they tired the next day do they sleep in?”
Is it not appropriate, Rizzo added, that a bird called king resides at the home of the Royals?
Most species patrolling the stadium soar high in nosebleed territory. The kingbirds, though, get close to the action. Their favorite perch is the cables that hold up the screen behind home plate. Umpires stop play when a dive comes too close to the batter.
At a recent home stand against Boston, Bob Foreman felt guilty not giving his attention to the play below, but the rooftop party deck is ideal for observing kingbird games overhead.
“They are so fun to watch,” the Smithville bird lover said. “They’re just such phenomenal fliers. All birds that eat bugs have to be. They follow them right down to the ground when they go after some of those big ol’ June bugs. I’ve seen them come very close to the turf and poles and seats. Sometimes you just wonder if they’re going to come out alive.”
Birds do occasionally pay a high price for a stadium meal.
In March 2001, lefty Randy Johnson of the Arizona Diamondbacks famously sent a dove to that great aviary in the sky with a fastball. The bird exploded into a cloud of fluff.
“There was nothing but feathers lying on home plate. I never saw the ball,” batter Calvin Murray said.
A few years ago, a Minneapolis kestrel found stardom at Target Field after his chase of a moth was play-by-played by the announcers and shown on the big screen. When the small falcon dive-bombed after its prey, the crowd roared. For his close-up, the falcon pulled the wings off his prey and chowed down atop a foul line pole.
The video made national sports highlights. The team held a contest to name him — Kirby the kestrel he became — and gave him his own Twitter account, for tweeting of course. Kirby has since moved on. Traded?
At Cleveland’s Progressive Field near Lake Erie, ring-billed gulls started treating the stadium like an all-you-can-eat buffet, swooping upon the park for discarded hot dog buns and such, loitering on the field like teens at a food court.
Grumbled an Indian, “It’s kind of embarrassing. We look like a bunch of kids playing on an abandoned field.”
The Royals have no love for those gulls, either. Three years ago. Game tied, bottom of the 10th. Cleveland’s Shin-Soo Choo smashed a line drive — right into the lounging birds, deflecting off one. The Indians scored and won. The bird lived to see another home stand.
Harvey Webster, wildlife resource center director at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, was consulted before management ended up using fireworks to drive the gulls out.
Still, bird-watching at Cleveland games is amazing, he said.
“In the springtime, really from Opening Day to June 1, there are waves of birds migrating to town, some headed toward Canada, and sometimes you get really odd migrants that turn up there. I’ve seen woodcocks, a funny little shorebird with big, bulgy eyes on top of its head bog suckers, mud bats.
“America’s pastime has a certain rhythm to it, a certain pace. And sometimes that pace is rather slow. So you bring your binoculars, and when you’re not watching the players on the field, you’re watching the birds.”
All free with the price of admission.