Minnesota Outdoors: Flycatchers are fascinating birds

Blane Klemek

     A while ago I wrote about the eastern kingbird. This species of “flycatcher” is one of a few dozen species of flycatchers that occur in North America, with maybe a dozen that migrate to or through Minnesota. All flycatchers, including kingbirds and phoebes, belong to the family Tyrannidae. Flycatchers are considered the largest family of birds with over 400 species!

    While there are many other birds that have fly-catching abilities, like gnatcatchers, kinglets, warblers, bluebirds, and others, few birds can match the fly-catching skills of flycatchers.  Other common tyrannids in our region include eastern wood-peewee, eastern phoebe, least flycatcher, and the great crested flycatcher.

    Less commonly observed, not to mention difficult to distinguish from one another, including between least flycatchers, are the willow and alder flycatchers.  Often is the case—as it is with many other look-alike species of birds—voice helps cement positive identification.  The least flycatcher, for example, is famous for its loud and distinctive “CHEbek” call.

    While eastern kingbirds are the more common Minnesota kingbird, its cousin the western kingbird, a yellow bellied bird that is perhaps more eye-catching than the eastern, resembles the great crested flycatcher, minus the head-crest.  Nevertheless, great crested flycatchers are birds of hardwood forests, whereas all kingbirds prefer more open landscapes.

    I’ve often observed flycatchers capturing flying insects after launching themselves from a favorite perch and give chase.  The hapless insects, though expert flyers in their own right, are always overmatched by flycatchers’ sheer will and command of wing.  Culminating each series of seemingly hard-earned victories, audible snaps like the loud click of one’s fingers, can easily be heard as species of flycatchers’ beaks snap shut onto its insect meals.

    And it is with this amazing fly-catching attribute—the snapping beak—that not only helps such birds capture their prey with such efficiency, but also to differentiate the tyrant flycatchers from the many other insect-eating passerines. Phoebes, pewees, Empidonax flycatchers, and of course, kingbirds, possess special ligaments that connect the upper and lower mandibles.  These ligaments serve as tiny springs that snap their mouths closed when a flying insect is captured.

    Another special flycatcher is the eastern wood pewee. This little flycatcher that’s not even six inches long (a little smaller than an eastern bluebird, but larger than a black-capped chickadee) is non-descript in many ways and somewhat difficult to identify. They resemble a few other flycatchers such as the eastern phoebe, but, unlike the phoebe, rarely wag their tails.

    Pewees also have a voice that sets them apart from any other bird that I know of. A male eastern wood pewee’s song is a slurred whistle that sounds similar to a human being whistling the commonly used “come here” whistle to summon a pet dog.  

    Somewhat embarrassing to retell, I was once fooled by the song of a pewee. As a young boy on the farm just learning the ways of the woods, I remember a lazy summer afternoon as I played and daydreamed in the little woods behind the farmstead, when I heard my Dad whistle for me to come home.

    I stopped what I was doing for second, listened, and heard the whistle again. “Yep, Dad must want me for something.” As was his customary habit of whistling loudly whenever he needed me for something—a chore, for supper, whatever—he’d whistle. And whistle loud. So off I went and back to the farm to see what he wanted. Upon arriving five minutes later and stepping into the barn where he was working, I go, “Yeah?”

    Dad looked at me funny and replied, “Yeah, what?”  

    “Didn’t you whistle for me?”



    And hence, my introduction to the ventriloquist of the woods, the eastern wood pewee.

    Indeed, flycatchers are fascinating birds.  Devoted to their young, caring for them longer than most other songbirds do, energetic, expert flyers and catchers of flying insects, flycatchers are fun birds to observe and listen to as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

    Blane Klemek is a regular outdoors columnist and likes to hear from his readers. Email bklemek@yahoo.com