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.
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 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/ .]
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).]
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.]
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.