Ernest Thompson Seton and the kingbirds of Kawartha Lakes

During his time in Kawartha Lakes, Seton came upon the bird that inspired him to be a wildlife writer. Sighting the little kingbird was the “beginning and foundation” of his career, but also the influence for the kind of person he became.

One of the earliest of my wild-life thrills was given by the king-bird. I had heard of the feathered monarch—his prowess, and the fact that, though little larger than a sparrow, he would assail and drive off any hawk—yes, even an eagle.But the authorities all made it so far away. The wonderful bird was found in Africa, or South America, or some vague tropical place, whose name was strange, or maybe it inhabited only “the books.”

One day, as I went for the cows with my older brother George and a neighbour, Jim Parker, a couple of crows flew high across. Then, from a low tree, there launched out a small bird that uttered a shrill war cry; and dashed first at one, then another of the big black fellows. They dodged and swooped in evident fear, and flew as fast as possible into the woods.

“What is that?” I asked eagerly.

“That’s a king-bird,” said my brother, for he had been learning from the woodsmen.

“An’ he kin lick anything that flies,” was added by the neighbour.

“A king-bird!” I gasped. Yes, and gulped a cup of joy. I had dreamed of it. I thought it a rare bird of far countries. Now I had seen it in our own land, with my own eyes; it had all become real. It lived and fought right here among our crows. The fact was glorious, stunning, in its magnitude. That man never knew how much he was giving me.

This was really a historic day for me, for the event focused my attention on the brave little king-bird. Always a hero-worshipper and a wild-life idolater, I took the king-bird into my list of nobles. Each year I learned more about him, and at last (in 1876) wrote a heroic poem, “The King-bird.”

In its final shape, I did not put it out until 1879, but in previous attempts and in illustrations I tried it on many of my friends in the years between. I consider it the beginning and foundation of all my work as a wild-animal story-writer.


The eastern kingbird is a large flycatcher found in open areas dotted with trees and bushes where they can perch to scout for their food. They are known for aggressively defending their territory, even against larger predators. They spend their winters in South America.

Kawartha Lakes contains a lot of open fields bordered by bushes and trees. Chances are, the kingbirds can still be found swooping from their perches.

In life, Seton was bullied as a child for being cross-eyed (the result of an early childhood accident; he eventually outgrew the condition); he was abused by his father; his career was trashed by someone he admired. Seton had plenty of reasons to become the kingbird, to fight off the bigger bullies, but he didn’t. In every instance, he took the high road.

More importantly, he looked out for those less fortunate: he financially looked after his family, including his parents (see the article, Ernest Thompson Seton and his father for more information on this), and when he finally confronted his natural history bully, James Burroughs, he didn’t speak for himself but for the younger man who was also trashed by Burroughs. (More on this in another article.) He wasn’t worried about the effect on his own career for he was already known in the industry, but the other guy was just starting out and he felt Burroughs should know the impact of his words on this man’s life.

As he says in the quote above, he was a “hero-worshipper and a wild-life idolator.” He did more than take the kingbird into his list of nobles. He became the kingbird others needed.

Such the legend of the King-bird,

Of the fearless crested King-bird;

He of fowls is the protection.

Though a sparrow he in size is,

Yet an eagle he in spirit.


This article is part of a series of articles about Ernest Thompson Seton.

Read more about his life in Kawartha Lakes here: Ernest Thompson Seton

Read about his relationship with his father here: Ernest Thompson Seton and his father

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