Tyrant Flycatchers (Tyrannidae)

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Tyrant flycatchers

(Tyrannidae)

Class Aves

Order Passeriformes

Suborder Tyranni (Suboscines)

Family Tyrannidae


Thumbnail description
Small to medium-sized perching birds with simple coloration (most are olive-green, gray, brown, or pale yellow); broad, flat bills; and specific vocalizations that are used to differentiate species

Size
3.5–11 in (9–28 cm); 0.2–2.4 oz (5.7–68 g)

Number of genera, species
110 genera; 375 species

Habitat
Riparian woodlands

Conservation status
Critically Endangered: 2 species; Endangered: 9 species; Vulnerable: 14 species; Near Threatened: 23 species

Distribution
North, Central, and South America

Evolution and systematics

Passeriformes, the largest order of birds, is divided by taxonomists into two groups: the suboscines and the oscines. Tyrannidae belong to the suboscines and is the only member of this primarily Central and South American group whose distribution extends into North America. Suboscines and oscines differ in the following ways: suboscines have a simpler syrinx (the respiratory-tract structure that produces sound); the small bone that transmits sound through the middle ear is differently shaped in the two groups; the mitochondrial DNA is differently organized; and oscines learn their songs while suboscines do not.

Taxonomists recognize four Tyrannid subfamilies based on skull and syrinx characteristics. The subfamilies are loosely enough defined that future classification modifications seem likely. The subfamily Elaeniinae (tyrannulets and elaenias) includes more than 180 species, and all but one—the northern beardless tyrannulet (Camptostoma imberbe)—breed in Central and South America. The subfamily Platyrinchinae (tody flycatchers and flatbills) includes genera exclusive to Central and South America. The subfamilies Fluvicolinae (fluvicoline flycatchers) and Tyranninae (tyrannine flycatchers) include genera from across the Tyrannid distribution. Two newly recognized Tyrannid genera, the becards (Pachyramphus) and the tityras (Tityra), had not been placed in subfamilies as of 2001. These two genera were formerly classified in the family Cotingidae.

The Tyrannidae, with 110 recognized genera and 375 species, form one of the largest bird families; indeed, the family has the largest number of species among Western Hemispheric birds. Many genera contain species that are nearly indistinguishable by sight and can be identified only by their distinct vocalizations. Divisions of what was formerly recognized as one species into two have occurred in numerous cases, as differences in vocalizations have allowed the identification of two non-interbreeding groups. For instance, the former Traill's flycatcher now consists of the alder flycatcher (Empidonax alnorum) and the willow flycatcher (E. traillii). These two species differ only in vocalization. Previously unknown tyrant flycatchers continue to be identified, sometimes several per year, and often due to their distinctive vocalizations. Most newly identified tyrant flycatchers are resident in South America.

Nest structure is also a useful indicator of phylogenetic relationships among Tyrannidae. Pewees (Contopus), phoebes (Sayornis), kingbirds (Tyrannus), and flycatchers (Empidonax) build cup-shaped nests (the most common shape among tyrannids). Myiarchus and the sulphur-bellied flycatcher (Myiodynastes luteiventris) nest in tree cavities. An enclosed dome-shaped nest with a side entrance is built by the northern beardless tyrannulet, the great kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus), and the rose-throated becard (Pachyramphus aglaiae).

Physical characteristics

The Tyrannidae family includes many species that look quite different from one another. However, certain physical characteristics are shared by the family as a whole. Tyrannidae are small to medium-sized, ranging from 3.5 to 11 inches (9 to 28 cm) in length—excluding tail streamers. They are usually simply colored, with shades of olive-green, gray, and brown on top and lighter colors (pale yellow, beige, and whitish) on the underparts. A few tyrannids are more brightly colored; the male vermilion flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus) has a bright red crown and underparts. Several species of kingbird have bright yellow breasts. The kiskadees have a bright red, orange, yellow, or white spot on the crown that is visible only when the feathers are erected or spread out in excitement. The royal flycatcher (Onychorhynchus coronatus) performs perhaps the most spectacular visual display among tyrannids. This species has a crest that is hardly visible when not erected. When courting, however, the male's crest becomes erect, and the forehead appears surrounded by a widespread crown embedded with brownish-purple and velvety-black dots. The female's crest is almost as wide but paler.

The Tyrannid bill is generally short, wide, and slightly hooked at the tip; this characteristic distinguishes the family from most other passerines. The size of the bill varies with a species' food preference. Species that capture small insects like gnats and midges have a short bill, and those that eat larger insects like dragonflies, bees, and beetles are endowed with a longer, sturdier bill. In most species, bills are equipped with stiff rictal bristles (modified feathers), presumably to help direct flying insects into the open bill. Studies in the 1990s challenged this assumption. In experiments, flycatchers whose rictal bristles were either clipped off or taped back were just as adept at catching insects as their counterparts with intact bristles. A new hypothesis is that the bristles may help prevent insects from entering the eyes on collision with the bird.

Tyrannids' third and fourth toes are joined along the most basal segment, and there are horny plates on the outer side of the tarsus.

The tail consists usually of 12 feathers but sometimes 10, and varies in shape from square to graduated and forked. Tyrannus has greatly elongated central tail feathers. The fork-tailed flycatcher (Tyrannus savana) and the scissor-tailed flycatcher (Tyrannus forficata) measure up to about 6 in (16 cm) in length, but when the tail is included these birds measure an impressive 14 in (36 cm) from the head to the tip of the tail feathers.

The sexes are visually similar, although the female is paler in many species. Young resemble adults, although in species that sport brighter colors, adults are brighter and more colorful.

Distribution

Tyrant flycatchers are distributed throughout the New World, from Tierra del Fuego to beyond the Arctic Circle in Canada and Alaska. Warm tropical lowlands are the areas of greatest species abundance and diversity. Most species that spend the summer in North America migrate to Central and South America for the winter.

Habitat

Tyrant flycatchers are found in a habitats ranging from hot, wet tropical forests to dry deserts and inhospitable mountains at heights that insects still can live. They are absent only from the coldest alpine tundra and Arctic regions. Most tyrannids require trees in combination with open areas, so they can sight prey from a perch and fly out to catch insects in midair. Some species stay mainly below the lower canopy, in shrub-like vegetation; others perch within the higher canopy where tree vegetation is sparse and affords room to maneuver.

In many cases, two closely related species occupy the same general location but avoid competition by remaining in habitats separated by height, density of vegetation, wetness, or type of tree. Such distinctions can help identify a species. For instance, Hammond's flycatcher (Empidonax hammondii) frequents the dense, high canopy of tall, mature conifers; while the dusky flycatcher (Empidonax oberholseri), which has a like appearance, lives in a similar habitat and region but stays lower to the ground in more open areas.

Most migrant tyrant flycatchers winter in a habitat similar to their breeding habitat. rough or soft and melancholic, depending on the species. Continuous calls are generally heard only at dawn. A few species repeat the twilight song at the end of the day. The birds rarely call or sing in full daylight except during courtship or territorial dispute. The twilight song is generally given for several minutes almost without interruption. The large sulphur-bellied flycatcher (Myiodynastes luteiventris) and related species sing at dawn in sweet, melodious tones, which contrast with the shrill calls they utter later in the day. Studies

with a few North American tyrannids suggest that their calls are innate rather than learned.

A few species perform display flight. At dusk, the lesser elaenia (Elaenia chiriquensis) flies up steeply from thickets where it spends the day and sings a short, rough-sounding song until it is above the crowns of the trees. It then makes a steep dive into the bushes and becomes silent for the night. Spectacular courtship displays also take place in flight in some species. The western kingbird (Tyrannus verticalis) male flies straight upward for up to 50 ft (15 m) and then flings himself back downward, tumbling wildly.

The name tyrant is derived from the kingbirds, which boldly attack raptors and other enemies, such as snakes or squirrels, in defense of their nesting territory. Only rarely do kingbirds molest their smaller neighbors. Male tyrannids also protect their territory against birds of the same species, and two species may enter into disputes when their ranges overlap. During an aggressive chase, tyrannids typically fly above an intruder, pecking and sometimes clawing at its back.

Tyrant flycatchers that nest in the tropics are generally resident, while most North American flycatchers are migrants. Most tyrant flycatchers migrate at night, but a few, including the western kingbird, the eastern kingbird, and the scissor-tailed flycatcher, sometimes fly southward during the day. The eastern kingbird travels thousands of miles during migration, sometimes in flocks of dozens to hundreds. When over-water crossings are delayed by rough weather, huge flocks gather along coastlines to await more favorable conditions. In late August 1964, a flock of an estimated one million eastern kingbirds was reported off Florida.

Feeding ecology and diet

Though predominantly insectivorous, tyrant flycatchers supplement their diet with all sorts of additional foods. Many species take spiders, caterpillars, berries, and fruit. The largest tyrannids often catch small vertebrates like fish, frogs, lizards, and even mice; occasionally some, like kiskadees and ground tyrants, become nest robbers.

Flycatchers' methods of obtaining food are variable. Many species rest on perches from which they seem to dive into the air to catch flying insects, returning to the perch after each flight. Whenever these birds make a catch or even just snap their bills in vain, the movement often makes an audible noise. A few species beat large insects forcefully against a branch until twitching stops. Many small species flit unobtrusively from twig to twig through thickets or in crowns of trees while catching insects. They may pick up insects and spiders from foliage or bark. Some tyrannids snatch larvae, insects, or small fish from shallow, fast-flowing water.

A number of tyrant flycatchers pick up food from the ground. The black phoebe (Sayornis nigricans), yellow-bellied flycatcher (Empidonax flaviventris), and scissor-tailed flycatcher, often sit on a fairly low perch and watch the ground beneath; they then fly down to catch crawling insects or worms. On the open steppes of southeastern South America and in the high Andes, ground tyrants walk or run on the ground and pick up worms, insects, and small vertebrates. They also make short flights in pursuit of flying insects.

The curved bill of some species is adapted to taking insects from the undersurfaces of leaves during flight or while hovering.

Reproductive biology

Most tyrannid species are solitary or occur in pairs. In many species, pairs remain together year round. Most species have been assumed to mate monogamously, with a few exceptions, such as the eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe), in which the male occasionally mates with more than one female. However, DNA studies suggest that extra-pair copulations might not be as uncommon as thought. In the eastern kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus), for example, these studies show that a male other than the mate regularly fertilizes the eggs. Such promiscuity is less likely to occur in species like the great crested flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus), in which the male guards the female closely after mating.

In many species both partners participate in nest building. In some species, the female does the bulk of the task while the male accompanies her as she gathers nest material, or at least greets her when she arrives with a billful of nest material. A few species do not form pairs, and the female builds the nest alone.

The diversity of nests in this family is quite rare. With the exception of the ovenbirds, no group of birds in America and possibly anywhere builds such a diversity of nest types in such a variety of locations. Tyrant flycatchers build open nests in bushes or trees and, rarely, on the ground. These open structures range from the orderly, firmly knitted, lichen-covered cup of the yellow-bellied elaenia (Elaenia flavogaster); to the wide, flat, shallow, disorderly cup of the tropical kingbird (Tyrannus melancholicus). Some species nest in holes in trees, posts, or cliffs, or in buildings or nest boxes. In places where trees and shrubs are rare, ground tyrants often build their nests in clefts in banks or stone walls.

Sometimes, existing holes are in short supply due to a large number of cavity-nesting birds in an area. In one remarkable case, a pair of ash-throated flycatchers (Myiarchus cinerascens) was reported to have attempted to build a nest in a pair of overalls hanging on a clothesline. The nest material they brought to the site kept falling out the bottom end of the pant leg, but then the owner tied the leg closed. The pair filled the leg and raised a brood of eggs.

Phoebes build nests that are large hemispheres of mud and plant material; then they place soft lining materials in the hollow upper part of the nest. They attach these nests to cliffs, bridge pylons, or sometimes onto the wall of a deserted house— always in a spot where the nest is protected from rain, because rain would detach the nest from the wall. There are also large nests with roofs and with a side entrance placed in the fork of two branches. The vermilion flycatcher saves itself much trouble by simply building its nest over an abandoned nest.

Many tyrant flycatchers build hanging nests that are suspended from thin twigs or hang from a single strand instead of being supported from below. These structures vary greatly in form, but always consist of interlocking nest materials. First, the flycatcher fixes a loosely connected base of fibers onto the selected spot. Then it forces the fibers apart and forms a nest chamber; next it lines the interior with additional material.

Many tyrant flycatchers make it difficult to enter their nest. For example, the blackish nest of the yellow-olive flycatcher (Tolmomyias sulphurescens) is shaped like a chemist's retort, suspended so that the opening faces straight down; the bird must enter the nest from below. The royal flycatcher's nest almost always hangs over running water. It is a loose, elongated mass of fibers sometimes 5 ft (1.5 m) long. The eggs are laid and the young are reared in a flat, hidden niche in the center of the nest.

The noisy, cantankerous piratic flycatcher (Legatus leucophaius) does not build its own nest. It takes over the nest of some other species by simply throwing out its victim's eggs or young. After bringing in a few dry leaves, the pirates begin their egg-laying.

Many tropical tyrant flycatchers lay two eggs; some lay three or occasionally four. Two to six eggs are laid in the higher latitudes of the northern and southern hemispheres. Eggs are white, pale gray, yellowish brown, or cream-colored. They are sometimes unspotted, but in many species have brownish red, brown, or pale lavender spots or blotches. Only the female incubates in all species about which reproductive information has been gathered; females of many smaller species sit rather restlessly on the eggs. If weather is good, she flies off the nest for a short while every few minutes. In phoebes, pewees, and a few other species, the male brings food to the incubating partner, but this is exceptional in the tyrant flycatcher family. Incubation varies from 12 to 23 days, depending on the species; it is longest in some of the smallest forms.

The nestlings are blind and helpless after hatching. They are sparsely covered with down or, in a few small tropical species, naked. The interior of a nestling's mouth is yellow or orange-yellow. The young are brooded for warmth by the mother but are fed by both parents in species that live in pairs. Most species bring insects or berries in their bills to the nest. Fledging occurs 14 to 28 days. In general, young of species with open nests leave the nest much sooner than those reared in hanging nests. The plumage of fledging is much like that of the adults. Young do not return to the nest to roost; however, in some species, the female continues to use the nest as a sleeping place.

Conservation status

Human activities have extended the distribution of a few tyrannid species. Newly built structures and freshly planted trees provide nesting sites for these species in areas where

Tyrannidae rarely live, such as open plains. Both the eastern and western kingbirds extended their ranges to the Great Plains of North America during the twentieth century, nesting on utility poles, towers, and planted trees.

Most cases of distribution change among Tyrannidae during the twentieth century, however, have been characterized by restriction rather than expansion. The range of the alder flycatcher has shifted northward, possibly due to climatic warming or the natural regrowth of woodlands. The latter possible cause is feasible because this species' habitat is swamp and meadow thicket.

Declines in population were reported during the 1990s for numerous species of tyrant flycatcher. The 2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species lists the following species as facing the most critical conservation challenges among tyrannids.

Critically Endangered:

  • Alagoas tyrannulet (Phylloscartes ceciliae) (Sibley and Monroe classification)
  • Minas Gerais tyrannulet (Phylloscartes roquettei) Endangered:
  • Ash-breasted tit tyrant (Anairetes alpinus)
  • Fork-tailed pygmy tyrant (Hemitriccus furcatus)
  • Kaempfer's tody tyrant (Hemitriccus kaempferi)
  • Santa Marta bush tyrant (Myiotheretes pernix)
  • Atlantic royal flycatcher (Onychorhynchus coronatus swainsoni)
  • Urich's tyrannulet (Phyllomyias virescens urichi)
  • Bahia tyrannulet (Phylloscartes beckeri) (Clements classification)
  • Antioquia bristle tyrant (Phylloscartes lanyoni) (Sibley and Monroe classification)
  • Giant kingbird, also called Cuban flycatcher (Tyrannus cubensis)

The southwestern subspecies of the willow flycatcher was on the United States Endangered Species List in 2001. Its population was estimated to be only a few hundred individuals in southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico. This subspecies breeds in dense vegetation along moving water, and its decline may be due to destruction of this habitat by cutting, fire, and cattle grazing. Large declines were also reported for the olive-sided flycatcher (Contopus borealis), the western wood-pewee (Contopus sordidulus), and the eastern wood-pewee (Contopus virens). Declines in the willow subspecies and the western wood-pewee are thought to be caused by deforestation of the birds' winter habitat in the South American Andes. The eastern wood-pewee may owe its decline to increases in the population of white-tailed deer in eastern North America. The deer's grazing behavior clears the vegetation structure of the forest floor, making the habitat less hospitable to the bird.

Significance to humans

Tyrant flycatchers do not pose any danger or particular usefulness to humans, nor have they been significant in art or myth. As insect foragers, they may inconspicuously play a role in keeping in check populations of insects that humans consider to be pests. At one time species that prey on bees were thought to be among the causes of a dangerous decline in bee populations. However, it has been shown that these species do not eat enough bees to be considered a serious threat, particularly when compared to the damage that parasitic mites wreak on bee colonies.

Since many tyrannid genera include species that are visually indistinguishable, this family provides challenging identification tasks to birders. Many species require that vocalization and nest-building behavior are considered before identification can be confirmed.

Species accounts

List of Species

Rose-throated becard
Scissor-tailed flycatcher
Western kingbird
Great kiskadee
Vermilion flycatcher
Northern beardless-tyrannulet
Olive-sided flycatcher
Willow flycatcher
Nutting's flycatcher
Say's phoebe
Eastern phoebe
Hammond's flycatcher
Greater pewee
Western wood-pewee
Great crested flycatcher
Sulphur-bellied flycatcher

Rose-throated becard

Pachyramphus aglaiae

taxonomy

Platyrhynchus aglaiae Lafresnaye, 1839, Jalapa, Veracruz, Mexico. Monotypic.

other common names

French: Bécarde à gorge rose; German: Dickkopfbekarde; Spanish: Bacaco de Garganta Rosada.

physical characteristics

(6.5–7.25 in (16.5–18.5 cm). The male has dark gray upper-parts, pale gray underparts, a blackish cap and nape, and a bright pink patch at the throat. The female has a gray crown, grayish brown or cinnamon upperparts, buff underparts, and a whitish throat. Body shape is stocky with a relatively big head. Juveniles are similar in color to adult females.

distribution

Central America and Mexico. Also occurs in parts of southeast Arizona and southwest Texas during breeding season.

habitat

Open forests, forest edges, wooded canyons, and mountains. As the nest hangs from a tree branch high above the ground, the species requires areas with tall trees.

behavior

Lives singly or in pairs, sometimes joins foraging flocks. Vocalizations include a soft, down-slurred whistle "tseeoou!" sometimes preceded by some reedy chatter. At dawn, its song is a reedy, complaining, long "wheeuu-whyeeeuuur, wheeuu-whyeeeuuur!"

feeding ecology and diet

Sits nearly motionless on a branch, hidden among leaves, watching for insects from the middle levels of clearings or forest edges. Sallies forth to snag insects from foliage or in flight and returns to same perch. Diet consists of insects, their larvae, and sometimes wild fruits and berries.

reproductive biology

Breeds in monogamous pairs, once per year, and male and female share nest-building duties, although the female carries a larger burden. Nests are spherical and hang from a branch of a deciduous tree. Clutches include two to six eggs, which the female incubates for 15 to 17 days. Juveniles fledge at 19 to 21 days and are fed by both parents.

conservation status

Not threatened. Rarely hosts cowbird parasitism.

significance to humans

None known.


Scissor-tailed flycatcher

Tyrannus forficata

subfamily

Tyranninae

taxonomy

Muscicapa forficatus Gmelin, 1789, Mexico. Monotypic.

other common names

French: Tyran à longe queue; German: Scherentyrann; Spanish: Pitirre Tijereta.

physical characteristics

11.5–15 in (29–38 cm); half of which is tail. Characterized by a long tail that opens and closes like a pair of scissors. Plumage includes pale gray upperparts, a pale gray head, white throat and underparts, pale salmon-pink sides and flanks, and dark brown wings with white edges. Bill, legs, and feet are black. Sexes are similar; juveniles are paler overall. Weight is 1.5 oz (42 g).

distribution

Oklahoma, Texas, limited surrounding areas in neighboring U.S. states, and far northern Mexico. Accidental across much of North America. Winters in southern Mexico and Central America.

habitat

Inhabits open land with scattered trees, prairies, scrublands, and farmlands.

behavior

Lives singly or in pairs during the day, roosts at night in groups of up to 200. Capable of acrobatic flight. During courtship, the male makes a sudden plunge from a hundred feet (30 m) above ground, flies downward and diagonally back and forth singing with a cackle, and proceeds to an upward flight followed by several backward somersaults. This display persists through courtship and nesting until the eggs hatch. Main vocalization is a sharp "bik!" or "kew!"; other calls include a chattering "kaquee-ka-quee!" and a repeated string of "ka-lup!".

feeding ecology and diet

From a main perch on branches, utility wires, and fences, watches for bees, wasps, and other flying insects, and then sallies forth, hovering momentarily over prey and dipping to catch it. Returns to same perch. Also hunts near the ground for crickets and grasshoppers.

reproductive biology

Breeds monogamously once per year; female builds nest and incubates a clutch of three to six eggs for 14 to 17 days. Nest is cup-shaped and built on either deciduous or coniferous branches, on shrubs, and in human-made structures. Young are fed by both parents and remain in nest for 14 to 16 days.

conservation status

Not threatened. Rarely hosts cowbird parasitism.

significance to humans

None known, other than interest in viewing the spectacular flight display of the courting male.


Western kingbird

Tyrannus verticalis

subfamily

Tyranninae

taxonomy

Tyrannus verticalis T. Say, 1823, La Junta, Colorado. Mono-typic.

other common names

English: Arkansas kingbird; French: Tyran de l'Ouest; German: Arkansastyrann; Spanish: Pitirre Occidental.

physical characteristics

8.75 in (22 cm); 1.4 oz (40 g). Plumage includes pale ashy gray head, neck, and breast, olive-green tinted back, bright lemon-yellow underparts, and dark brown wings. Tail is squared and black with white outer edges. Feet and legs are black. Bill is small, flat, and black. The crown, rarely erect, hides a red-orange patch. Sexes are similar.

distribution

Occurs throughout the western half of the continental United States, with limited extensions into western Canada and northern Mexico. Winters in southwestern Mexico and Central America. Vagrants are common during migration in the southeastern United States.

habitat

Semiarid open areas and grasslands with scattered trees. During the twentieth century, range expanded with the spread of agriculture; buildings, utility structures, and fences provide new foraging perches and nest sites. Lives gregariously in urban areas; up to three pairs can nest in the same tree.

behavior

Lives singly, in pairs, or in small groups. Male performs courtship flight display, involving upward darting flight, fluttering and vibrating of feathers, and trilling vocalizations. Regular call is a quiet, quick "bek!" Also chatters abrasively: "ker-er-ip, ker-er-ip, pree preee pr-prrr." Known for being aggressively territorial, often chasing large birds such as hawks, crows, and ravens away from its nesting area.

feeding ecology and diet

Sallies from low, middle, and high perches in open areas to catch insects in midair, returning to the same perch. Hovers momentarily over prey before dipping to catch. Also takes fruits and berries.

reproductive biology

Monogamous breeders, in solitary pairs or in small colonies. Nests are built by both sexes, near the trunk on a horizontal limb or on a cross-arm of a human-made structure. Nest is cup-shaped. Clutches of three to seven eggs are incubated 18 to 19 days by the female; and young are fed by both parents and fledge after 16 to 17 days.

conservation status

Not threatened.

significance to humans

Well-known locally.


Great kiskadee

Pitangus sulphuratus

subfamily

Tyranninae

taxonomy

Lanius sulphuratus Linnaeus, 1766, Cayenne. Monotypic.

other common names

English: Kiskadee flycatcher; French: Tyran quiquivi; German: Bentevi; Spanish: Benteveo Común.

physical characteristics

9.8 in (25 cm). Plumage includes white forehead and eyebrows, black crown, wide black eye line, brown back and rump, reddish brown wings and tail, bright yellow crissum, yellow underparts, and white cheeks, chin, and throat. Bill is black and stout; legs and feet are also black. Underwings are yellow, and in flight, the yellow of the underwings and belly contrast with the reddish brown of the overwings and tail. A yellow crown patch is usually concealed. Sexes are similar.

distribution

Common in the tropics of Central and South America. Common in southwest Texas; casual in coastal Louisiana, southeast Arizona, southeast New Mexico, southeast Texas, western Oklahoma. Introduced and established on Bermuda.

habitat

Wet woodlands, open areas with scattered trees, forest edges, scrub vegetation, bushes, and lakes and rivers.

behavior

The great kiskadee gets its name from its call, a loud, slow, screaming "kiss-ka-dee!" or "k-reah!" It is energetic, noisy, and aggressively territorial, chasing away much larger birds from its nesting area. Lives solitary or in pairs. It is easily spotted, drying its feathers on an open, conspicuous perch after diving for aquatic prey. Nonmigratory.

feeding ecology and diet

Sits on perch to watch for prey that includes aquatic insects, small fish, frogs, tadpoles, baby birds, lizards, mice, and both crawling and flying insects. Returns to perch to eat. It often beats larger prey against a branch before swallowing. Takes fruits and berries when other food is unavailable.

reproductive biology

Breeds monogamously, two to three clutches of two to five eggs per year. Nests are spherical, built by both sexes in thorny trees, palm trees, or on braces of utility poles. Female incubates eggs an estimated 13 to 15 days, and young fledge at 12 to 21 days. Young are fed by both parents.

conservation status

Some in the United States have declined due to habitat loss caused by deforestation and development. The species is still common in the Central and South American tropics.

significance to humans

None known.


Vermilion flycatcher

Pyrocephalus rubinus

subfamily

Fluvicolinae

taxonomy

Pyrocephalus rubinus Boddaert, 1783. Monotypic.

other common names

French: Moucherolle vermillion; German: Purpurtyrann; Spanish: Sangre de toro.

physical characteristics

6 in (15.25 cm). Among the most colorful tyrannids, and certainly the most brightly colored tyrannid in North America.

Plumage of males includes bright red crown and underparts, blackish brown tail and upperparts, and dark brown lores and mask joining at nape. Bill is short, broad, flat, and black; legs and feet are brownish black. Females have a white chin, throat, and chest, a pale pinkish belly and crissum, grayish brown upperparts, and a thin white supercilliary stripe. The juvenile male is similar to the adult male but more pale; the juvenile female is similar to the adult female but with a yellow wash to the belly and crissum.

distribution

Occurs from the southernmost regions of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas south to Argentina.

habitat

Desert, semidesert, scrub vegetation, forest edge, open forest, and grassland with scattered trees. Often found near water bodies, such as lakes, ponds, irrigation ditches, and cattle tanks.

behavior

Lives singly or in pairs. Has a quiet and tame disposition; very approachable. Often chooses a low perch. Wags and pumps the tail. Vocalization follows a pattern during display flight. While in direct flight, the call is a piercing, metallic "pseeup!"; this is followed by a hovering phase with tail spread out and crest erected, which is accompanied by a rapid "pi-pi-li-li-li-sing!"

feeding ecology and diet

Perches on a low branch, sights prey and sallies forth, hovering to catch it. Returns to the same perch. Sometimes forages on the ground. Feeds on insects, particularly bees.

reproductive biology

Monogamously breeds twice a year. Cup-shaped nest is constructed by the female in the fork of a horizontal branch or on top of an abandoned nest. Eggs typically number two to four. Female incubates them for 14 to 15 days, and the young, fed by both parents, fledge after 14 to 16 days.

conservation status

Not threatened, though populations in southeast California and Texas declining; cause unknown.

significance to humans

Attractive to birders for its bright red color.


Northern beardless-tyrannulet

Camptostoma imberbe

subfamily

Elaeniinae

taxonomy

Camptostoma imberbe Slater, 1839, San Andres Tuxtla, Veracruz, Mexico. Monotypic.

other common names

English: Northern beardless flycatcher; French: Tyranneau imberbe; German: Chaparral-Fliegenstecher; Spanish: Piojito Norteño.

physical characteristics

Length is 4.5 in (11.5 cm); perches in very upright posture. Plumage includes a gray crown with a bushy crest, gray-olive upperparts, grayish brown wings, and white or pale yellow underparts. Bill is small and slightly curved, with brown tip and creamy pink base.

distribution

From southern Arizona and Texas to Costa Rica. More common in the southern half of its range.

habitat

Low woods, mesquite, stream thickets, brush, lower canyons.

behavior

Lives singly or in pairs. Often wags tail while perching. Song is a high, thin whistle "peert!" or "pee-yerp!" Also sings three or more down-slurred notes "dee, dee, dee, dee."

feeding ecology and diet

Hawks insects in midair. Also gleans insects form twigs and leaves and takes berries.

reproductive biology

Breeds monogamously once or twice a year. Nest is spherical, built by female, and located on the outer branches of a deciduous tree. Clutch is one to three eggs, incubated by female for undetermined time; age of young at first flight also unknown.

conservation status

Not threatened, though some populations declining with loss of streamside habitat, possibly due to cattle grazing.

significance to humans

None known.


Olive-sided flycatcher

Contopus borealis

subfamily

Fluvicolinae

taxonomy

Contopus borealis Swainson, 1832. Monotypic.

other common names

English: Boreal peewee; French: Moucherolle à côtés olive; German: Fichtentyrann; Spanish: Pibí Boreal.

physical characteristics

7.5 in (19 cm). Stout flycatcher with a large head, short neck, and short tail. Plumage includes brownish olive upperparts, head, crest, and wings; and dull white throat, center breast strip, belly, and undertail coverts. Bill is large and mostly black, with a dull orange lower mandible.

distribution

Breeding regions include Alaska, most of Canada, the northwest United States, California, and the Rocky Mountains. Winters from Southern Central American to Peru.

habitat

Mountainous terrain and coniferous forest. Also frequents burns, bogs, and swamps.

behavior

Solitary and reclusive; often perches on a high, exposed limb or the top of a dead or living tree. Vocalization is often described as "quick, THREE beers!" with the second note higher. Also trebles a "pip!" Aggressively defends nesting territory against predators and humans.

feeding ecology and diet

Often from a dead branch, hawks large insects (up to the size of cicadas, beetles, and honeybees) in mid-flight and returns to the same perch.

reproductive biology

Breeds monogamously once per year. Female builds cupshaped nest, usually on horizontal branches of coniferous trees. Clutch consists of three to four eggs, incubated 14 to 17 days by the female; young fledge at 21 to 23 days.

conservation status

Not threatened, but many areas host declining populations; a loss of wintering habitat is the suspected cause.

significance to humans

None known.


Willow flycatcher

Empidonax traillii

subfamily

Fluvicolinae

taxonomy

Empidonax traillii Audubon, 1828. Five subspecies.

other common names

French: Moucherolle des saules; German: Weidentyrann; Spanish: Mosqueta Saucera.

physical characteristics

5.75 in (14.5 cm). Plumage includes a brownish to brownish green head, brownish green upperparts, dark wings with buff

to yellow wing bars, pale yellow trim on tertials and secondaries, a dark tail, a thin, pale eye ring, pale lores, whitish underparts, and dusky side flanks tinged with yellow. Feet and legs are blackish, and bill is blackish with a yellowish pink lower mandible. Plumage color varies somewhat with region; for example, northwestern races have a dark head, while southwestern races have a pale head. Sexes are similar.

distribution

Breeding is mostly restricted to the continental United States, including the northwestern states, Rocky Mountains, Great Plains, Midwest, and northeastern regions.

habitat

Prefers shrubs and undergrowth, willow thickets, fresh water marshes, ponds, rivers, and lakes.

behavior

Silent in migration, but otherwise sings a sharp "fitz-bew!" or "fitz-be-yew!" Also releases a loud "whit!" Perches low, below top of vegetative layer; chooses an exposed perch to sing. During courtship, males chase females in flight.

feeding ecology and diet

Perches to spot prey, sallies forth to catch prey in midair, and returns to the same perch. Feeds on flying insects, insects gleaned from foliage, spiders, and occasional berries.

reproductive biology

Monogamous breeders. Nest is cup-shaped and compact, often with hanging streamers, built by female in the fork of a deciduous tree. One clutch per year of two to four eggs, incubated by female for 12 to 15 days. Juveniles remain in the nest for 12 to 14 days, fed by both sexes.

conservation status

Not threatened, though populations on the west coast are declining due to loss of streamside habitat, particularly caused by grazing animals. Nests are parasitized by the brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater). May also be imperiled by loss of tropical wintering habitat due to deforestation.

significance to humans

None known.


Nutting's flycatcher

Myiarchus nuttingi

subfamily

Tyranninae

taxonomy

Myiarchus nuttingi Ridgway, 1882. Monotypic.

other common names

English: Pale-throated flycatcher; French: Tyran de Nutting; German: Blasskehltyrann; Spanish: Atrapamoscas de Nutting.

physical characteristics

7.25 in (18.5 cm). Plumage includes a dark gray crown (sometimes with a tinge of cinnamon), olive-brown upperparts, two white wingbars, wing coverts and secondaries edged with white, cinnamon-edged primaries, dusky central tail feathers, yellow belly and undertail coverts, and pale gray throat and breast. Interior of mouth is orange. Sexes are similar. Almost identical in appearance to ash-throated flycatcher (Myiarchus cinerascens); distinguishable in the field only by song.

distribution

Western Mexico to western Costa Rica; accidental to southeastern Arizona.

habitat

Prefers semiarid deciduous slopes and thorny thickets.

behavior

Lives singly or in pairs. Nonmigratory. Song is a quick, loud, chattering "wheep! wheep!", in addition to a repeated "ki didi-dir!"

feeding ecology and diet

Eats insects and some berries. Most often snatches prey from foliage while hovering; also hawks prey in midair and returns to perch.

reproductive biology

Monogamous. Nest is built by both sexes in a preformed burrow and lined with grasses, rootlets, weeds, and feathers. Female incubates one to two clutches of three to five eggs per year for 14 days. Young are fed by both parents and fledge at 14 to 16 days.

conservation status

Not threatened.

significance to humans

None known.


Say's phoebe

Sayornis saya

subfamily

Fluvicolinae.

taxonomy

Sayornis saya Bonaparte, 1825. Monotypic.

other common names

French: Moucherolle à ventre roux; German: Sayphoebe; Spanish: Mosquero Llanero.

physical characteristics

7.5 in (19 cm). Plumage includes brownish gray upperparts, pale grayish brown throat and breast, tawny buff belly and undertail coverts, and blackish brown tail feathers. Bill is small and black; legs and feet are also black. Sexes are similar.

distribution

Alaska to Texas along the western half of North America (excluding the coast). Winters throughout Mexico.

habitat

Savannas, farmlands, and open brushlands. Not as tied to watercourses as other phoebes.

behavior

While perched, song is a whistled, down-slurred "phee-eur!" or "chu-weer!" In flight, utters a quick "pit-se-ar!" Frequently sings at dawn. Lives singly or in pairs. Conspicuously perches on exposed branches, wires, posts, buildings, and other structures. Migratory.

feeding ecology and diet

Eats insects and rarely berries; sometimes regurgitates insect exoskeletons. Eyes prey from perch or while hovering, and sallies forth to capture in midair (often with a loud snap of the mandibles).

reproductive biology

Nest, built by the female, is cup-shaped and adheres to the vertical wall of a cave, cliff, bridge, or building. Monogamously breeds once to twice per year. Female incubates clutch of three to seven eggs for 12 to 14 days. Juveniles' fledge at 14 to 16 days.

conservation status

Not threatened. Rarely hosts cowbird parasitism.

significance to humans

None known.


Eastern phoebe

Sayornis phoebe

subfamily

Fluvicolinae

taxonomy

Sayornis phoebe Latham, 1879. Monotypic.

other common names

French: Moucherolle phébi; German: Phoebe; Spanish: Mosquero Fibí.

physical characteristics

7 in (18 cm). Plumage includes dark brownish gray head and upperparts, dark brownish wings and tail, white underparts (touched with yellow in fall in first-year birds), and olive-tinted sides and breast. Bill is small and black, as are feet and legs.

distribution

Eastern North America from central Canada to the Midwest and northeastern states; winters in the southern states and eastern Mexico.

habitat

Lives near lakes and rivers in forest edges, open areas with scattered trees, and rocky areas.

behavior

Often wags tail on perch. Lives singly or in pairs. Songs include a sharp, repeated "chip!" and a "FEE-be!" with an accent on the first syllable.

feeding ecology and diet

Perches to watch for insects, catches prey in midair, and returns to perch. Also takes insects from foliage and from the ground. Sometimes takes fruit, berries, and small fish.

reproductive biology

Breeds two to three times per year. Mostly monogamous, but sometimes a male breeds with more than one female. Female builds a cup-shaped nest attached to a vertical wall or on a shelf. Nest may be located on a cliff, building, or bridge.

conservation status

Not threatened by IUCN standards. Blue-listed by the National Audubon Society in 1980 and listed as Special Concern in 1986, due to decreases in several areas across the Midwest, south Atlantic, and Great Lakes regions. Some populations in the 1990s were reported to be stable or increasing, and ranges of some populations were expanding, possibly due to the species' tolerance for human-made structures as nesting sites.

significance to humans

Migrates early and indicates the coming of spring to the southern states. The first bird-banding experiment in North America, carried out by John James Audubon in 1840, used the eastern phoebe to gather information about longevity, dispersal, migratory movements, and site fidelity.


Hammond's flycatcher

Empidonax hammondii

subfamily

Fluvicolinae

taxonomy

Empidonax hammondii Xantus, 1858. Monotypic.

other common names

French: Moucherolle de Hammond; German: Tannentyrann; Spanish: Mosqueta de Hammond.

physical characteristics

5.5 in (14 cm). Small bird with large head and short tail. Plumage includes gray head, white eye ring, grayish olive back, dark gray wings and tail, whitish wing bars, gray or olive tint on the breast and sides, and belly washed with pale yellow. Bill is narrow and short. Base of lower mandible is pale orange. Keeps a fairly horizontal stance while perching.

distribution

Summer resident in southeastern Alaska, western Canada, northwestern United States, and Rocky Mountains. Winters throughout Latin America.

habitat

Inhabits wide range of forest types, but prefers coniferous forest at higher elevations than other Empidonax flycatchers.

behavior

Active bird, frequently flicking tail and wings while perched. Can be silent for long periods; when vocal, call is a low, rapid "sill-it!" or "chip-it!", also a low, rough "greep!" or "pweet!" Migratory.

feeding ecology and diet

Eats flying insects. Perches high to spot prey, hawks in midair, and returns to same perch. Also gleans insects from foliage.

reproductive biology

A shallow, cup-shaped nest is built by the female, who incubates one clutch of three to four eggs once per year. Breeding is monogamous.

conservation status

Not threatened. Habitat vulnerable to deforestation of high-elevation conifers.

significance to humans

None known.


Greater pewee

Contopus pertinax

subfamily

Fluvicolinae

taxonomy

Contopus pertinax Cabanis and Heine, 1859.

other common names

English: Coues' flycatcher, smoke-colored peewee; French: Moucherolle bistré German: Couestyrann; Spanish: Pibí Ahumado.

physical characteristics

8 in (20 cm). Plumage includes grayish olive head and upper-parts, whitish throat and chin, pale gray breast and underparts, a yellow wash on the belly, and a long tail appearing notched when folded. The slender, tufted crest is a distinctive identifier. Bill has a black upper mandible and an orange lower mandible.

distribution

Southern Arizona and New Mexico, south through Mexico and into Nicaragua.

habitat

Montane pine-oak woodlands and wooded canyons.

behavior

Lives singly or in pairs. Frequently perches in dead pines. Whistles "ho-sa, ma-re-ah!" and chirps a steadily repeated "pip-pip-pip!" Defends nesting territory aggressively against larger birds, snakes, and squirrels. Migratory.

feeding ecology and diet

From middle-level perch, hawks insects in midair.

reproductive biology

Breeds monogamously once per year. Female builds a cupshaped nest in the fork of a conifer or sycamore. Clutch consists of three to four eggs. Young are fed by both sexes.

conservation status

Not threatened. Habitat vulnerable to logging of coniferous forest.

significance to humans

None known.


Western wood-pewee

Contopus sordidulus

subfamily

Fluvicolinae

taxonomy

Contopus sordidulus Slater, P.L., 1859.

other common names

French: Pioui de l'Ouest; German: Forst-Piwih; Spanish: Pibí Occidental.

physical characteristics

6.25 in (16 cm). Dark grayish brown plumage overall, with paler underparts and two thin white bars on wings. Bill is dark with yellow-orange lower mandible base.

distribution

Central Alaska south across most of the western half of North America, through western Mexico and Central America. Winters from Panama to Peru.

habitat

Inhabits riparian woodlands, and open, mountainous, mixed conifer and hardwood forests.

behavior

Solitary dweller, remains mostly quiet and hidden. Sings "tseetee-teet!" on breeding grounds. Also uses soft, nasal whistle "peeer!" Frequently sings until after dark and before daylight. Shakes its wings when landing on perch. Migratory.

feeding ecology and diet

Perches to watch for food; hawks prey in midair. Eats variety of flying insects; occasionally feeds on spiders and berries.

reproductive biology

Breeds monogamously once per year. Nest is cup-shaped, built by the female, and sits on a horizontal branch of a (usually coniferous) tree, bound to the branch by spider web. Brood is two to four eggs, incubated by the female for 12 to 13 days.

conservation status

Not threatened, though some populations in California are declining for unknown reasons. Vulnerable to deforestation in wintering areas.

significance to humans

None known.


Great crested flycatcher

Myiarchus crinitus

subfamily

Tyranninae

taxonomy

Myiarchus crinitus Linnaeus, 1758. Monotypic.

other common names

French: Tyran huppé; German: Schnäppertyrann; Spanish: Atrapamoscas Copetón.

physical characteristics

8.5 in (21.5 cm). Plumage includes a dark gray crown, olive-green upper parts, gray throat and upper breast, yellow belly

and undertail coverts, two white wing bars, and reddish inner webs on tail feathers. Bill is heavy and black.

distribution

Eastern half of the United States, extending into southeastern Canada. Winters from eastern Mexico to Columbia.

habitat

Prefers thickly wooded areas and forest edges.

behavior

Lives singly or in pairs. Aggressively territorial; males will battle in the air with other males, clawing and pulling out feathers. Songs include a strong whistle of "wheeeep!" and a rolling "prrrrrrreeet!" Often perches high in the canopy on exposed or dead limbs. Migratory.

feeding ecology and diet

Hawks large insects in midair, higher in the air than most flycatchers; also gleans prey from foliage. Sallies from and back to a single perch. Takes beetles, crickets, katydids, caterpillars, moths, butterflies, and some fruits and berries.

reproductive biology

Breeds monogamously once per year. Male chases female in flight during courtship. Nest, built by both sexes, is located in a preformed cavity such as the abandoned hole of another bird or a bird box. Nest lining is often covered with a shed snake-skin or piece of discarded plastic. Female incubates four to eight eggs for 13 to 15 days.

conservation status

Not threatened. Habitat is vulnerable to deforestation.

significance to humans

None known.


Sulphur-bellied flycatcher

Myiodynastes luteiventris

subfamily

Tyranninae

taxonomy

Myiodynastes luteiventris Slater, P.L., 1859. Monotypic.

other common names

French: Tyran tigré German: Weisstirntyrann; Spanish: Benteveo de Buche Amarillo.

physical characteristics

8.5 in (21.5 cm). Like only one other tyrannid (the other is the streaked flycatcher Myiodynastes maculatus), is streaked both above and below. Plumage includes olive-green upperparts with heavy streaking, pale yellow belly with dark brown streaking, reddish rump and tail, whitish secondaries and wing coverts, a blackish malar mark, and white stripes on face above and below dark eye patch. Bill is thick and black. Yellow patch in center of crown is visible only when crown is erect, during passion or aggression while courting.

distribution

Southeastern Arizona to Costa Rica; winters from eastern Ecuador to northern Bolivia.

habitat

Sycamore canyons, open woods, forest edges, and plantations.

behavior

Lives singly or in pairs. Often perches high in canopy, remaining hidden. Early-morning song is a soft, repeated "tree-le-reere!" During courtship, both sexes sing a loud "kee-ZEE-ik!" Migratory.

feeding ecology and diet

Spots prey from perch, hawks in midair, and typically returns to perch to eat. Also gleans prey from foliage while hovering. Takes large insects, caterpillars, and spiders, but will also eat fruits and berries.

reproductive biology

Male and female chase each other in flight during courtship. Breeds monogamously, once per year, later in year than most other flycatchers. Clutch of two to four eggs are incubated by the female in a preformed cavity nest located in a tree knot, abandoned nest, or bird box.

conservation status

Not threatened.

significance to humans

None known.


Resources

Books

American Ornithologists' Union. Check-list of North American Birds: the Species of Birds of North America from the Arctic through Panama, including the West Indies and Hawaiian Islands. 7th edition. Washington, DC: American Ornithologists' Union, 1998.

Finch, Deborah M., and Scott H. Stoleson, eds. Status, Ecology, and Conservation of the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher. Ogden, UT: United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, 2000.

McCabe, Robert A. The Little Green Bird: Ecology of the Willow Flycatcher. Madison, WI: Rusty Rock Press, 1991.

Poole, Alan F., P. Stettenheim, and Frank B. Gill, eds. The Birds of North America. Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Science; Washington, DC: American Ornithologists' Union, 1992--.

Skutch, Alexander Frank. Life of the Flycatcher. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.

Periodicals

Brosseau, La Ree. "Southwestern Willow Flycatcher." Endangered Species Technical Bulletin 25 (2000): 32.

Busch, Joseph D. et al. "Genetic Variation in the Endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher." Auk 117 (2000): 586.

Mezquida, Edouardo T. and Luis Marone. "Breeding Biology of Gray-Crowned Tyrannulet in the Monte Dessert." Condor 102 (2000): 205.

Taroff, Scott A. and Laurene Ratcliffe. "Pair Formation and Copulation Behavior in Least Flycatcher Clusters." Condor 104 (2000): 832.

Organizations

Center for Biological Diversity. P.O. Box 710, Tucson, Arizona 85702-0701 USA. Phone: (520) 623-5252. Fax:(520) 623-9797. E-mail: [email protected] Web site: <http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/swcbd/index.html>

Other

Mangoverde World Bird Guide. "Tyrant Flycatchers." <http://www.mangoverde.com/birdsound/tyrflycatch/>. (11 December 2001).

Tyrant Flycatchers. <http://www.montereybay.com/creagrus/flycatchers.html>. (11 December 2001).

Tamara Schuyler, MA