The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Scissor-tailed Flycatchers Are Arriving in South Texas
by Ro Wauer

Of all the Neotropical migrants that pass through South Texas, the lovely scissor-tailed flycatcher is probably the most welcome of all. Few birds have the appeal of this charismatic songbird. Not only is it one of our most beautiful birds, but it seems to prefer a relationship with humans, nesting on utility poles and in trees often surprisingly close to our various structures. Its amazing courtship flights and continuous singing tend to give it an additional appeal. It therefore is often called the “Texas bird of paradise.” And its arrival in South Texas is a sure sign that the new season has begun.

The long-tailed, brighter males arrive first with the shorter-tailed females appearing a few days later. By then the males have already established territories and are chasing competitors away from preferred sites, often the same sites utilized the previous season When the females arrive, the males take on a very different persona, performing some wonderful courtship flights, ascending to more than 100 feet before sailing back, often with outstanding acrobatics. These dramatic flights include up and down flying, much zigzagging, and even reverse somersaults, usually at great speeds and with tails flowing and fluttering and wings out to display their salmon-colored armpits and underwing linings. All the while he is performing, he will be giving cackling-snapping calls. The female will usually join in the fun. Scissor-tails also give a unique dawn song on their breeding grounds that include a series of loud stuttering “pup” sounds that conclude with an emphatic “perlep” or “peroo.”

Like all flycatchers, the scissor-tail’s diet is principally insects, at least during the nesting season. Although most insects are captured in flight, scissor-tails will also take insects on the ground, perhaps more often than most flycatchers. Grasshoppers are a favorite food source. On their wintering grounds in southern Mexico and Central America they will also consume berries.

Although paired scissor-tails are generally loners, as soon as the youngsters are fledged, they will usually join other family groups. In some cases these flocks can include up to 200 individuals. And unlike most other members of the flycatcher family, which usually are quiet after nesting, scissor-tails continue calling until they leave for their wintering grounds in September or October, as well as throughout their migration and in winter. These often congregate at choice sites. And 100 or more scissor-tails can create quite a racket.

Most Texans think of this bird as their state bird instead of the mockingbird, which is the official state bird. That undoubtedly is because of the charisma of this long-tailed songbird, and also perhaps because the mockingbird is so commonplace. While mockingbirds are full-time residents throughout most of the state, leaving only the far northern portions of the state in winter, scissor-tails normally are present only from March through October. But during that period they can be found in all but far West Texas, where they occur only occasionally.

By November the vast majority of the summer resident and migrants passing through the state from Oklahoma, Kansas, and southeastern New Mexico have gone south. Recent records, however, suggest that a few birds remain in South Texas all winter. The rest migrate south of the border where they occur in huge flocks, flycatching over open grasslands, pastures, and fields. But by March they are with us again. Few songbirds are as welcome and admired as out lovely scissor-tailed flycatcher.

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