Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Nature Bulletin No. 381-A   May 9, 1970
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

There is a large group of birds called the Tyrant Flycatchers because of their exceptional ability to catch insects in the air and some, especially the Kingbirds, are fearless scrappers that attack and drive away any crow, hawk or other large bird which comes too near their nests. Like the little warblers and the hummingbirds, they are found only in the Americas. There are over 400 species, largely tropical, but at least 30 kinds are found in the United States. Most of these, including several quite common in our eastern and middle western states, have rather dull coloring and some are difficult to describe or tell apart. In the Southwest there are two notable exceptions: the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, with its long streaming tailfeathers; and the vividly colored little Vermilion Flycatcher.

A flycatcher has a flat triangular bill, broad at the base and bent abruptly downward at the tip. Its wide mouth, with long stiff bristles at the corners, is adapted for catching winged insects in mid-air. Certain species undoubtedly do eat some honeybees, or spiders, or predatory insects such as dragonflies, or parasitic wasps and flies that prey on harmful insects; but the good they do, in consuming far greater quantities of injurious insects, makes them valuable birds. Some of the smaller species feed mostly on mosquitoes, gnats or midges.

The singing ability of flycatchers, if any, is very limited but each species has a distinctive call. Some of our eastern kinds prefer to nest near water; others near orchards and farm buildings; some in open country; a few in deep woodlands; and a few in the northern coniferous forests; depending upon where their favorite prey is most abundant. A flycatcher usually perches on a convenient look out spot such as a dead tree, a leafless branch or twig, a pole, or a telephone wire. There it waits, motionless except for an occasional jerk of its tail, for passing insects which it pursues and seizes -- often with rapid twists and aerial maneuvers.

Best known, probably, is the Eastern Kingbird which is found from the Atlantic coast to Oregon and New Mexico, and from southern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Somewhat smaller than a robin, it is identified by its slaty-black head and back, white underparts, and a white band across the tip of the black tail. This flycatcher nests in rural areas, in orchards or woodland edges and frequently near water. It is also called the Bee Martin, but unjustly because most of the honeybees it eats are drones and, in addition to a small amount of fruit, it consumes great numbers of injurious insects, including the robber flies that prey on bees. The kingbird is often seen, high in the air, repeatedly diving to strike the head of a crow, a hawk, or even an eagle. We saw one, with its nest in an apple tree, attack a dog and, another time, the hat of a man passing underneath.

The Eastern Phoebe has almost as wide a range and returns north very early in spring. Largely gray, it has the habit of constantly wagging its tail and calls its name, over and over, in a low voice. The phoebe builds a mud nest, covered with moss, under bridges, on rock ledges in ravines, and frequently in barns and eaves or porches of farm homes. The eastern Wood Pewee is similar but smaller, has two noticeable wingbars, and does not wag its tail. It nests on horizontal limbs in woodlands, orchards and rural villages where its plaintive dawling "pee-a-wee" is often heard.

Any good bird book tells many interesting facts about the large Crested Flycatcher that usually includes a shedded snakeskin in its nest in an old woodpecker hole; and about several other flycatchers including some little ones that have distinctive voices. Now is a good time to watch them.

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