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.
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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Update: June 2012