Bird Lore: Western Wood-Pewee

The Western Wood-Pewee is a drab brownish-gray flycatcher that can be seen in Edmonds in small numbers during summer. It breeds from Honduras, through Mexico, the Western U.S., Western Canada, and into Alaska. It winters in Northern South America. It calls late into the summer evening when most other songbirds are quiet.

All flycatchers eat insects and rarely take berries. Their preferred foraging strategy is to sit upright on a perch and wait until an insect flies by. They then sally out to grab the insect in mid-air. A flycatcher’s bill is usually wide and flat so that there is a larger surface for grabbing elusive insects. Long bristles at the corners of the mouth may act as feelers in that split second before the bill snaps shut on an elusive fleeing insect. Keen eyesight helps a flycatcher know when to sally out and give chase to an insect on the wing. The Western Wood-Pewee watches from an exposed perch within the middle or lower levels of a tree. Its posture is upright while it awaits its prey. It eats a variety of flies, wasps, bees, winged ants, moths, beetles, and a few caterpillars.

The male sings in spring, particularly at dawn and dusk, to defend his nesting territory. Little is known about its courtship behavior, but it may include active chasing through the treetops. The nest site can be in either a coniferous or deciduous tree, on a lateral branch well out from the trunk and usually 15-40 feet above ground. The female probably builds the nest, which is a flat open cup of grass and other plant fibers. The outside may be camouflaged with gray mosses, leaves, and lichens. From the side or below, the nest may simply look like a bump or knot on the branch.

There are usually three eggs, incubated by the female for 12-13 days. Both parents feed the young. Age of the nestlings at first flight is probably about 14-18 days.

The Western Wood-Pewee looks almost identical to the Eastern Wood-Pewee. They were once considered the same species. There is a narrow zone of overlap in the Great Plains but there is no evidence that the two species hybridize in that zone, probably because of their distinctive songs. Flycatchers recognize their own species by song and other vocalizations. The lack of evidence of any interbreeding supports the split into two species. Both species winter in Northern South America but because most flycatchers are silent or vocalize infrequently outside of the breeding season, ornithologists have not been able to determine the specific wintering locations of each species.

The oldest Western Wood-Pewee of record was an eight year and one month old female. She had been banded in California in 1995 and then re-caught in the same state in 2002. Collective nouns for any group of pewees include a “dribble”and a “squirt” of pewees. Flycatchers do not come to bird feeding stations. The Western Wood-Pewee may visit a wooded backyard or a property that is adjacent to patches of forests or woodlands. Edmonds residents who live near wooded parks may see this species in or near their yards. Look for it perched on a bare branch, as shown in several of the accompanying photos.

The Western Wood-Pewee is common and its conservation status is that of low concern. Nonetheless, its population has declined 1% per year since 1966, resulting in a cumulative decline of about 48%. The population is estimated at 9.2 million, with 59 percent breeding in the U.S., 29 percent in Canada, and 12 percent in Mexico. The species is sensitive to logging that occurs after forest fires on its breeding grounds and to loss of tropical forest habitat on its wintering grounds.

The daytime song of the male Western Wood-Pewee can be heard here: One writer has remarked that the burry, descending whistle has a hazy sound that is well suited to hot summer afternoons.

By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

2 Replies to “Bird Lore: Western Wood-Pewee”

  1. Dear Carol,
    Thank you so much for your in depth description of this sweet little bird. I will be on the lookout for it
    in my back yard. I just hope it will not be stopped at the border for illegal migration violation.
    Even the smallest and the youngest need protection!
    Ingrid Wolsk


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