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Eastern Wood-Pewee

Contopus virens ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: TYRANNIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The olive-brown Eastern Wood-Pewee is inconspicuous until it opens its bill and gives its unmistakable slurred call: pee-a-wee!—a characteristic sound of Eastern summers. These small flycatchers perch on dead branches in the mid-canopy and sally out after flying insects. Though identifying flycatchers can be confusing, pewees are grayer overall, with longer wings, than other flycatchers. They lack the eyerings of the Empidonax species, while they’re less brown (with stronger wingbars) than a phoebe. With a careful look they’re quite distinctive.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
5.9 in
15 cm
Wingspan
9.1–10.2 in
23–26 cm
Weight
0.4–0.7 oz
10–19 g
Relative Size
A bit smaller than an Eastern Bluebird; larger than a chickadee.
Other Names
  • Pioui de l'Est (French)

Cool Facts

  • When several flycatcher species live in the same forest, the Eastern Wood-Pewee tends to forage higher in the trees than the Least and Acadian flycatchers, but lower than the Great Crested Flycatcher.
  • The Eastern Wood-Pewee’s lichen-covered nest is so inconspicuous that it often looks like a knot on a branch.
  • The Eastern Wood-Pewee and Western Wood-Pewee have different calls but are nearly impossible to tell apart by eye. Their breeding ranges overlap in a very narrow zone in the Great Plains. Researchers have found no evidence that the two species interbreed in that area.
  • The oldest Eastern Wood-Pewee on record was at least 8 years, 2 months old when it was captured and released by a Maryland bird bander in 2010.

Habitat


Forest

Usually found in clearings and forest edges, Eastern Wood-Pewees breed in nearly any type of wooded habitat in the eastern United States and southeastern Canada—including mature woodlands, urban shade trees, roadsides, woodlots, and orchards. They prefer deciduous forest but also live in open pine woodlands of the south and mixed hardwood-conifer forest of the north. Although they usually avoid streams in eastern forests, they often nest in riverside habitat in the Great Plains. During spring and fall migration, Eastern Wood-Pewees stop in a variety of habitats with trees and shrubs, including edges, clearings, primary forest, and secondary forest. They spend the winter in wooded, partially cleared, and shrubby habitats of northern South America and possibly Central America, usually below 4,300 feet of elevation.

Food


Insects

The Eastern Wood-Pewee captures small flying insects by sallying out from a dead branch partway up in the canopy. According to one study, they make an average of 36 sallies per hour in the nonbreeding season and almost twice as many—68 sallies per hour—when feeding its young. It may also glean insects from foliage or the ground, sometimes taking advantage of locally abundant prey during insect emergences. Its diet includes flies, bugs, butterflies, moths, bees, wasps, beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, stoneflies, and mayflies. The pewee also eats small amounts of vegetable matter, including the berries and seeds of dogwood, blueberry, raspberry, and poison ivy.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–4 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
0.7–0.8 in
1.7–2.1 cm
Egg Width
0.5–0.6 in
1.3–1.4 cm
Incubation Period
12–14 days
Nestling Period
16–18 days
Egg Description
White or creamy with a wreath of brown or purple speckles.
Condition at Hatching
Helpless, with sparse down feathers and closed eyes.
Nest Description

The nest is a small cup made of woven grass—or sometimes weeds, wool, bark strips, twigs, roots, mosses, pine needles, or leaves—covered with lichens that provide superb camouflage. It measures 3 inches across and 1-2 inches high. The inner cup, which is lined with hair, grass, moss, lichens, and plant fibers, measures 2 inches across and 0.5–1 inches deep.

Nest Placement

Tree

Eastern Wood-Pewees nest in trees and saplings such as elms, oaks, maples, birches. The nest is usually 15–70 feet off the ground.

Behavior


Flycatching

Eastern Wood-Pewees are territorial during the breeding season, holding territories that range from about 5-20 acres in size. The male changes his singing patterns in response to other males. He also attacks other species that approach while he is singing, although his territory may overlap with those of Great Crested Flycatchers and Least Flycatchers. Pewees appear to be monogamous; the female incubates the brood while the male brings food. They are solitary during migration and on the wintering grounds.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Eastern Wood-Pewees are common birds, but their population has been gradually declining over most of their range, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. On average, the decline has been 1.3 percent per year from 1966—2010 (an overall decline of about 44 percent in that time), the survey reports. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 5.5 million, with 94 percent breeding in the U.S. and 6 percent in Canada. They rate a 10 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List. One reason for their decrease may be the high northeastern populations of white-tailed deer, whose browsing may cause changes to the intermediate canopy where pewees forage. Pewees are tolerant of forest fragmentation, since they live in both edge habitat and forest interiors.

Credits

Range Map Help

Eastern Wood-Pewee Range Map
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Migration

Long-distance migrant. The Eastern Wood-Pewee is one of the last spring migrants to return from its wintering range in South America. Most individuals migrate over land through Mexico, but some cross the Caribbean.

Backyard Tips

Like other flycatchers, pewees usually don’t come to feeders. They may visit wooded backyards or property adjacent to patches of forests or woodlands.

Find This Bird

The Eastern Wood-Pewee’s plaintive song of three sliding notes (pee-a-weeeee) is distinctive and easy to learn. It makes finding these woodland birds fairly straightforward. It helps that male Eastern Wood-Pewees are inveterate singers, belting out song nearly throughout the day. Look for small, olive-colored birds making sallies and watch such birds until they perch; Eastern Wood-Pewees pause frequently after sallying, which usually enables you to study them well.

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