The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Saturday, August 30, 2003

Scissor-tailed Flycatchers
Bill Lindemann, Fredericksburg Standard/Radio Post, Kerrville Daily Times, August 2003, © 2003

The arrival of the sleek and beautiful Scissor-tailed Flycatchers in April is a sure sign that spring has "sprung." The appearance of additional large numbers of these flycatchers in August and September is a sign that the fall migration season is beginning. After spending the summer raising their young throughout Texas and Oklahoma, these birds are beginning to respond to the instincts that tell them to prepare for the trip to Mexico and beyond.

One of the factors birds apparently use to gauge the right time to move south is the decreasing hours of daylight. Migration south is not based on the general cooling of the days. Here in Texas, August and September can be very hot months. Scissor-tails tend to migrate in small groups rather than large flocks and migrate over land rather than the Gulf of Mexico, so they can feed as they travel.

For the next month a trip into the country and even along the edges of cities and towns there will be increasing numbers of scissor-tails appearing. One interesting aspect of their migration is that they tend to group up at roosting time. One can imagine that this communal roosting gives the participants an opportunity to "discuss" the summers events, and maybe even brag on the success of their families; however, the real reason lies in an apparent feeling of safety in numbers.

One of the differences between fall and spring is that many of the fall birds have shorter tails and may not appear as sleek as in their spring breeding plumage. The shorter tails reflect the large number of youngsters who won't grow their long black and white tail feathers until their late winter molt. Females generally have shorter tail feathers and some of the males may be molting or showing signs of territory battles when they may have lost a few feathers.

One way to locate a fall roosting tree is to find a large number of the long tail feathers on the ground. You will likely hear and see the commotion that goes on in the roost trees before you spot the dropped feathers. Noisy birds during their breeding season, this noise doesn't wane in the fall. Remember that it is against the law to collect feathers of birds other than game birds. Once in a while there is a story about someone in trouble with the law over using wild bird feathers in hats, or jewelry, or other accessories.
Using common sense in your judgment about this matter should keep you out of trouble.

A few weeks ago I wrote a column about birds with "attitudes." Scissor-tailed Flycatchers belong to a family called "tyrant flycatchers." They might be small, but they are very feisty, particularly when the time comes to defend their territories from intruders. They along with their cousins, the kingbirds, lead the charge against hawks and larger birds who cross their territories.

Over the next month watch the telephone, powerline, and fence wires for small groups of scissor-tails. They might hang around for a couple of days before moving a few miles closer to their winter grounds in southern Mexico and Central America. A few stragglers may stay around until November. After they have all gone south, we can spend the winter anticipating their return
in the spring.

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