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Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Tyrannus forficatus ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: TYRANNIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

An elegant gray and salmon-pink flycatcher festooned with an absurdly long tail, the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher is the bird to look for on fence wires in the south-central United States. They typically perch in the open, where their long, forked tails make an unmistakable silhouette. The tail proves useful as they expertly catch insects on the wing with sharp midair twists and turns. In late summer and early fall, scissor-tails gather in large, bickering flocks to migrate to Mexico and Central America.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
8.7–14.6 in
22–37 cm
Weight
1.3–2 oz
36–56 g
Relative Size
Smaller and more slender overall than an American Robin, but can seem larger because of the very long tail; larger than an Eastern Phoebe.
Other Names
  • Tyran à longue queue (French)
  • Tirano-tijereta rosado (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The Scissor-tailed Flycatcher forms large premigratory roosts in late summer, with up to 1,000 birds in one flock. They often roost near towns, perhaps taking advantage of the large trees as roosting sites.
  • The Scissor-tailed Flycatcher uses many human products in its nest, such as string, cloth, paper, carpet fuzz, and cigarette filters. One study of nests in an urban area in Texas found that artificial materials accounted for 30% of the weight of nests.
  • A member of the kingbird genus Tyrannus, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers resemble other kingbirds in behavior, voice, and morphology. Only one other Tyrannus species—the Fork-tailed Flycatcher—has a dramatically long tail.
  • Scissor-tailed Flycatchers tend to wander widely on their way to and from the wintering grounds, a habit they share with Fork-tailed Flycatchers and Tropical Kingbirds. During spring and fall they may show up almost anywhere in North America, as far north as British Columbia and Nova Scotia.

Habitat


Grassland

Scissor-tailed Flycatchers breed in savannas with scattered trees, shrubs, and patches of brush in the south-central U.S. and just over the border into northern Mexico. They also breed in towns, farm fields, pastures, and landscaped areas like golf courses or parks—areas with a mixture of feeding perches, open space, and trees for nesting. Scissor-tailed Flycatchers spend the winter in southern Mexico and Central America, in humid savannas, pastures, agricultural lands, scrublands, villages, towns, and the edges of tropical deciduous forests. They commonly stay below 5,000 feet elevation but occasionally winter at up to 7,500 feet. Sometimes they roost in towns and disperse to the countryside to forage.

Food


Insects

Scissor-tailed Flycatchers eat insects, particularly grasshoppers, crickets and beetles. They occasionally eat fruit, particularly on their wintering grounds. They usually forage between ground level and 30 feet off the ground, snatching insects from the air or gleaning them from vegetation. Between insect-catching flights they return to a perch on a fence, wire, or tree branch. Often a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher will swallow a small prey item during the flight back to its perch, but it beats large items against the perch before eating them. Occasionally Scissor-tailed Flycatchers capture insects directly from sparsely vegetated ground. On rare occasions they forage for insects or berries by hopping from branch to branch in live oak, post oak, red mulberry, or hackberry, or by hovering near trees.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
3–6 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
0.8–0.9 in
2–2.4 cm
Egg Width
0.6–0.8 in
1.5–2 cm
Incubation Period
13–23 days
Nestling Period
14–17 days
Egg Description
White or creamy with dark red, reddish brown, or purple blotches.
Condition at Hatching
Helpless, with reddish brown skin and sparse white down.
Nest Description

The female builds the nest on her own, often escorted by the male. She may finish the nest in a couple of days or spend a few weeks on it. She builds a rough frame, 5–6 inches across, using coarse materials like plant stems and flowers, oak catkins, cudweed, wool, Spanish moss, peppergrass, tissue, paper, string, thread, and cotton. She makes an inner cup—3 inches across and 2 inches deep—of closely knit cudweed flowers, string, cloth, and cotton, sometimes adding wet soil, caterpillar cocoons, sheep wool, Bermuda grass leaves, cedar bark, chicken feathers, seed silk, cigarette filters, paper, or carpet fuzz. Finally, she lines the nest with tightly woven dried roots, thistledown, cotton fibers, and wooly cudweed leaves.

Nest Placement

Tree

The male and female travel together throughout their territory in search of a nest site in open prairie, mesquite prairie, parks, gardens, pastures, croplands, roadsides or saltmarsh edges. When they find a potential nest site in an isolated tree or shrub, they both hop around and test out different spots by pressing themselves against the branches. They choose an open site that’s sheltered from the prevailing wind and often shaded by some foliage.

Behavior


Flycatching

The Scissor-tailed Flycatcher flies in straight lines with fast wingbeats, its tail folded. It also often hovers with its tail spread or makes abrupt turns in midair. Scissor-tailed Flycatchers form large roosts during spring and fall migration, and they flock in winter as well. In some populations the males continue roosting in groups throughout the breeding season, but breeding birds tend to forage alone or in pairs. Males arrive before females in the early spring to establish and defend territories. After pairing up, both males and females chase and attack other individuals that intrude onto their territory. Trespassing happens frequently, especially in the early morning, so keep an eye out if you see these birds as you may be treated to an amazing aerial chase. Pairs are monogamous within a breeding season but don’t always reunite in later years. Scissor-tailed Flycatchers attack intruding Red-tailed Hawks, Swainson’s Hawks, Turkey Vultures, Mourning Doves, Great-tailed Grackles, Common Grackles, Northern Mockingbirds, Western Kingbirds, Loggerhead Shrikes, House Sparrows, American Crows, Blue Jays, and Lark Sparrows.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher numbers showed a small decline between 1966 and 2010, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. A decline in the mid-1970s was offset by an increase in numbers during the 1980s. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 9.5 million with 92 percent breeding in the U.S., and 50 percent spending some part of the year in Mexico. They rate an 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List. To safeguard nest and perch sites, researchers suggest that leaving strips or patches of brush intact when clearing brush or applying herbicides. The species may be expanding its range in response to forest clearing on both breeding and wintering grounds. Severe thunderstorms or tornadoes can destroy many nests when they interrupt the otherwise hot, sunny weather of the breeding season.

Credits

Range Map Help

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Medium-distance migrant. During both spring and fall migration between the south-central United States and Central America, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers tend to wander widely and can show up pretty much anywhere throughout North America.

Backyard Tips

Scissor-tailed Flycatchers occasionally supplement their insect diet by visiting berry bushes such as mulberry or hackberry.

Find This Bird

Within their range, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers are one of the most conspicuous roadside birds—easily visible at 65 miles per hour if you keep your eyes peeled along fencerows from the passenger side of the car. Their pale color can make them hard to spot against the sky, but their long tails are eye-catching both when at rest and in flight. During migration in fall and early spring you may see them in very large, noisy flocks. They leave the U.S. in winter, so look for them in spring and summer.