SCISSOR-TAILED FLYCATCHER: the Texas Bird of Paradise

SCISSOR-TAILED FLYCATCHER: the Texas Bird of Paradise

Dr. James J. S. Johnson

And the Lord shall make thee the head, and not the tail [zânâb]; and thou shalt be above only, and thou shalt not be beneath; if that thou hearken unto the commandments of the LORD thy God, which I command thee this day, to observe and to do them.

(Deuteronomy 28:13)

Usually we think of “head” as being valuable and important, but “tail” not so much. Being a “head” is desirable; being a “tail” not so — as Moses indicated in Deuteronomy 28:13, quoted above. (See also, indicating likewise, Deuteronomy 28:44 & Isaiah 9:15.) However, when God made birds, on Day #5 of Creation Week (Genesis 1: 20-23), God made them with feathered tails that blend practical traits (such as aerodynamic rudder functionality) with beauty (such as the extravagant tail of a peacock).

Among the “tyrant” flycatchers, certainly there is no better example of this blending, of beauty and bioengineering, than the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, famous for eating flies on the fly.

SCISSOR-TAILED FLYCATCHER perching on fence
Texas Parks & Wildlife Dep’t photo credit

Earlier this month [June A.D.2022], on 2 different occasions, I saw Scissor-tailed Flycatchers (Tyrannus forficatus) in my neighborhood.  One was larger than the other, so those must have been different Scissortails, because the size difference would not have occurred in just 3 days’ time! 

SCISSOR-TAILED FLYCATCHER flying
Ken Slade / BirdNote.org photo credit

Scissor-tailed Flycatchers are beautiful squeaky-voiced birds with long-streaming split tail plumage that looks like long scissor blades. The Scissortail’s head and most of their plumage (neck, upper back, and breast) is soft-looking ivory-white (to very light grey), plus white-edged black on wings and tail feathers, with sides (flanks) and underwings that feature salmon-like orange-pink.

14” [long, including tail feathers.]  Very long split tail; pale gray body; pinkish wash on flanks.  In flight: Underwings bright pinkish orange.  …  Feeding: Flies from perch to catch insects on the ground [such as grasshoppers or beetles] or in the air [such as flies and dragonflies].

[Quoting from Donald Stokes & Lillian Stokes, “Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus)”, STOKES FIELD GUIDE TO BIRDS: WESTERN REGION (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1996), page 312.

This flycatcher (which also eats lots of grasshoppers) is well established throughout Texas, the Lone Star State, which is itself quite a range.  The Scissortail’s breeding range also includes Oklahoma (where it is the official state bird — a fact that I learned from Christian attorney Don Totusek!), as well as large parts of Kansas, Missouri, western Arkansas, western Louisiana, and small parts of eastern Colorado and Nebraska.  Probably the best places to see them during breeding season are Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas.  As migrants, these kingbirds fly south of the USA for the winter, e.g., into Mexico—although some are observed over-wintering in southern Florida. [See, accord, Robert C. Tweit, “Scissor-tailed Flycatcher”, in Texas A&M AgriLife Research’s TEXAS BREEDING BIRD ATLAS, posted at https://txtbba.tamu.edu/species-accounts/scissor-tailed-flycatcher/ .]

SCISSOR-TAILED FLYCATCHER perching
Texas A&G AgriLife.org photo credit

If you have ever seen a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher you won’t forget it—Scissortails are unlike any bird you have ever seen, unless you have seen their shorter-tailed cousin called Mexico’s Fork-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus savanna, known in French as le tyran á queue fourchue = “the tyrant of the fork-tail”), with whom Scissortails can mate.  In fact, Scissortails are also known to hybridize with Couch’s Kingbird (Tyrannus couchii), as well as with Western Kingbirds (Tyrannus verticalis), which themselves hybridize with Eastern Kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus) — so there are many “cousins” within the greater kind-family of aggressive insectivores we call “tyrant kingbirds”. [See Eugene M. McCarthy, HANDBOOK OF AVIAN HYBRIDS OF THE WORLD (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2006), pages 203-204; see also Alexander J. Worm, Diane V. Roeder, Michael S. Husak, Brook L. Fluker, & Than J. Boves, “Characterizing Patterns of Introgressive Hybridization Between Two Species of Tyrannus Following Concurrent Range Expansion”, IBIS (International Journal of Avian Science), 161(4):770-780 (October 2019).]

SCISSOR-TAILED FLYCATCHER flying
eBird.org photo credit

One Scissortail (that I saw recently) was flying between trees on the side of a golf course.  The other Scissortail was flying from a residential lawn, that had a few trees and bushes, to another residential lawn, that also had a few trees and bushes. 

No surprise there, because Scissortails prefer to hunt insects in areas that mix open fields with trees and shrub cover, such as the semi-open country of grassy prairies, farm fields, suburb clearings, and ranchlands sporadically dotted with honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) trees.

Scissor-tailed Flycatchers (Tyrannus forficatus) are Neotropical migrants that breed throughout the south-central United States with the highest breeding densities in southern Oklahoma and northern Texas, corresponding to the core of the breeding range …  In their breeding range, they occupy open areas that provide adequate hunting perches and nesting sites including savannahs, prairies, brush patches, agricultural fields and pastures. … Scissor-tailed Flycatchers require trees for nesting and hunting perches to support their foraging strategy given that they are sit-and-scan foragers that utilize perches such as shrubs, trees, utility wires and fences, while they scan for insect prey …. Most prey are captured in the air [“hawking”] a short distance from the perch [citation omitted] which further indicates the need for open habitat to facilitate foraging.

[Quoting from Erin E. Feichtinger & Joseph A. Veech, “Association of Scissor-Tailed Flycatchers (Tyrannus forficatus) with Specific Land-Cover Types in South-Central Texas”, WILSON JOURNAL OF ORNITHOLOGY, 125(2):314-321 (2013), at page 314.]

In other words, Scissortails prefer habitats with ecotones where open-field and forest-cover micro-habitats overlap, i.e., preferring to nest and hunt “in landscapes (linear transects 0.8-40.2 km in length and 2.4 km wide) with a mix of “open country” and “closed forest” than in landscapes comprise mostly of either of these two general cover types.” [Quoting from Feichtinger & Veech, page 314.]

SCISSORTAILED FLYCATACHER perching
Bird-Sounds.net photo credit

Scissortails perch and wait, watching for their next prey to move into capture range. Their method of hunting, called “hawking”, involves an aerial dash (with a sudden spurt of speed) toward a soon-to-be-seized target.  In more casual flight, however, this beautiful kingbird is easier to see and to appreciate.

The scissor-tailed flycatcher, with its namesake long, forked tails, is one of the most recognizable bird species on the Katy Prairie and throughout southeast Texas’s coastal prairie ecosystem. The male’s tail can reach up to 15 inches long while the female’s tail can reach about 10.5 inches, making the scissor-tailed flycatcher a spectacular sight to see.  The species name forficata, not surprising, derives from the Latin word for ‘scissors’ (forfex). The scissortail is a member of the Tyrannus, or ‘tyrant-like’ genus. This genus earned its name because several of its species are extremely aggressive on their breeding territories, where they will attack larger birds such as crows, hawks, and owls.

During the reproduction season between April and August, the male [Scissortail] performs a spectacular aerial display during courtship, sharply rising and descending in flight, its long tail streamers opening and closing, while the bird gives sharp calls. He may even perform backwards somersaults in the air.

[Quoting from Andy Goerdel, “State of the Species: Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus)”, COASTAL PRAIRIE CONSERVANCY (January 31, A.D.2022), posted at www.coastalprairieconservancy.org/blog/state-of-the-species-scissor-tailed-flycatcher .]

“Somersaults in the air”?  That reminds me of when I did flips, in the air, on a neighbor’s trampoline, more than a half-century ago.  But those days are over.  (At least I hope they are!) 

Nowadays I’d be happy to see a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher do aerial somersaults, as I sit comfortably in an Adirondack chair.  A glass of iced tea would help the birdwatching experience. Maybe, too, I could better appreciate looking, at a Scissortail’s salmon-colored underwings and flanks, as I snack on some smoked salmon.

But I digress.

SCISSOR-TAILED FLYCATCHER perching
National Audubon Society photo credit

 

Vermilion Flycatchers: Watching from Above

Vermilion Flycatchers: Watching from Above

Dr. James J. S. Johnson

For the ways of man are before the eyes of the Lord, and He pondereth all his goings.  (Proverbs 5:21)

The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good  (Proverbs 15:3)

Vermillion-Flycatcher-on-thistle.Links-of-Utopia

As our providence-giving Creator, God surveys (and interacts with) all of the world, watching from above. Yet many small parts of the earth are also “watched from above”, by many of the smallest creatures that God made on Day #5 –  the birds of the air, such as the Vermillion Flycatcher.

If you catch flies (or dragonflies!) for a living, you must fly yourself – quickly, darting here and there. Also, before nabbing an airborne lunch, you must perch and wait  —  attentively watch for it to appear within snatching distance, then go get it! In other words, before you catch, you need to “watch from above” – and that is what wary Vermilion (also spelled “Vermillion”) Flycatchers do.

“Catching flies” is a feat that many outfielders perform in baseball parks, but the real flycatchers (i.e., the tyrant flycatcher family of perching birds, known as Tyrrannidae) rely on snatching their aerial insect prey as their primary dietary habit  —  and the colorful Vermilion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus) is no exception.  In addition to flying insects (such as flies, wasps, honeybees, damselflies, and dragonflies), this tyrant flycatcher happily eats jumping insects (such as grasshoppers and crickets) and crawling bugs (such as beetles, spiders, and termites).

Vermilion-Flycatcher-male-with-dragonfly-prey.DougGreenberg-Arkive-photo

Typically, though, these acrobats nest in tree canopies, feeding in-flight. [Janine M. Benyus, THE FIELD GUIDE TO WILDLIFE HABITATS OF THE WESTERN UNITED STATES (New York: Simon & Schuster/Fireside Books), page 169.]

http://www.hbw.com/sites/default/files/ibc/v/converted/551596/vermilion_flycatcher_0_mp4_sd_1488396039.mp4 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l3HyWMnvPk0  

Vermilion-Flycatcher-female-flying.JimBurns

The ability of birds to watch “from above” is well-known. In fact, a 8-year-old poet (Sydney) recently alluded to that trait, in her succinct free verse:

     Birds:

     Fun colors, flying, watching from above.

     Birds.

[Poem “BIRDS” by Sydney Ledbetter, 5-27-AD2017.]

Sydney.earrings

Actually, it is the male of the species that is so strikingly colorful —  with its bright scarlet head crest (which matches its technical name, meaning “fiery-head”), forehead, and neck, and its belly’s stark vermilion plumage  —  contrasted against its dark UPS-truck-brown eye-shadow “mask”, wings and tail.  (Vermilion, as a color, is a synonym for scarlet, perhaps connoting a hint of cinnamon-like orange shading, as in the mercury sulfide-dominated cinnabar pigment historically used by painters  —  see Jeremiah 22:14 & Ezekiel 23:14, KJV, referring to vermillion as a bright pigment painted on paneling).

Vermillion-Flycatcher-pair.Arizona-SonoranDesertMuseum

In drab contrast, the females have brown-grey plumage atop, with a whitish underside, featuring a whitish breast with mottled grey streaks, down to a lower belly of pinkish-peach plumage – somewhat like a juvenile Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, except the female Vermilion Flycatcher’s head is dark brown-grey. [See Roger Tory Peterson & Virginia Marie Peterson, A FIELD GUIDE TO WESTERN BIRDS (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990), pages 230-231 and map M251.]  The Vermilion Flycatchers are relatively small birds, being only a fraction longer than 5 inches, and typically weighing less than a half-ounce!

Vermillion Flycatcher

So where do Vermilion Flycatchers live? These aerial insectivores range widely in America’s Southwest  (mostly in the southern parts of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas) and almost all of Mexico, plus southward into Central America (and even a few parts of South America).  Thus, the Vermilion Flycatcher is a year-round resident of the Chihuahuan, Sonoran, and Mojave Deserts.  Although the Vermilion Flycatchers generally prefer warm desert and semi-desert climes, they sometimes breed a bit north of their usual range, during spring-summer  —  such as in southern Nevada, where a pair was observed in the Great Basin scrubland near Reno, during mid-May of AD1981.  [See Fred A. Ryser, Jr., BIRDS OF THE GREAT BASIN (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1985), page 346.]

A wide-ranging bird, this usually warm-climate passerine has even been observed crossing America’s northern border, up into Canada — and now there is even a webcam-verified report (4-17-AD2017) of a stray in Maine, on Hog Island [ see http://www.audubon.org/news/maines-first-verified-vermilion-flycatcher-captured-live-hog-island-web-cam ]!

Vermillion-Flycatcher-Range-MAP.Cornell

Geographically, speaking, what kind of habitats can be settled as “home” by Vermilion Flycatchers? Most places with adequate room for flying, and spying flies, will suffice, such as open meadows, farmland, ranchland, semiarid prairies, sagebrush-sprinkled scrublands, and brushy areas near water, such as desert streambanks, pond-edges, and mud-puddles  — i.e., wherever insects often congregate.  Their nests are known be constructed in cottonwoods, mesquites, oaks, sycamores, willows, especially alongside streambanks.

Although many birds of the desert and semi-desert scrublands are drab, including the Vermilion Flycatcher female, the Vermilion Flycatcher male is anything but drab! Its “fiery head” matches its scientific genus name, Pyrocephalus, and its species name, rubinus, reminds us of its ruby-like plumage.

Accordingly, as Pyrocephalus rubinus “watches from above” (with its “fun colors”, like the bright vermillion mentioned in Jeremiah 22:14),  we are reminded of how God Himself watches us from above,  providentially providing our lives with color and action and beauty,   —  maybe someday even including an opportunity to view a pair of Vermilion Flycatchers in America’s Great Southwest.      ><>  JJSJ

Vermillion-Flycatcher-on-post.LoisManowitz

FAIR USE IMAGE CREDITS:

Vermilion Flycatcher male perched on post: Lois Manowitz / Cornell

Vermilion Flycatcher atop thistle: Links of Utopia

Vermilion Flycatcher female flying:  Brent Paull

Vermilion Flycatcher male with dragonfly prey: Doug Greenberg / Arkive.org

Vermilion Flycatcher female perching: BirdFellow Productions

Vermilion Flycatcher female flying:  Jim Burns

Vermilion Flycatcher range map: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Vermilion Flycatcher male & female: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Sydney, wearing pierced-ear cross: Krista Ledbetter

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