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Great Kiskadee

Pitangus sulphuratus ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: TYRANNIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Great Kiskadees are a treat for bird watchers who visit south Texas—and the birds won’t keep you waiting. They’re boisterous in both attitude and color: a black bandit’s mask, a yellow belly, and flashes of warm reddish-brown when they fly. Kiskadees sit out in the open and attract attention with incessant kis-ka-dee calls and sallying flights. Despite their small U.S. range, this is one of the most widespread flycatchers in the Western Hemisphere.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Relative Size
Larger and bulkier than a kingbird; smaller than a Blue Jay or Green Jay.

Cool Facts

  • The Great Kiskadee (so named for its three-syllable call) is one of the largest and most boisterous members of the tyrant flycatcher family. It has a big square head and stocky body like a kingfisher, and an omnivorous diet and bold behavior like a jay. They often eat small fish and snails.
  • The kiskadee’s bold behavior and mix of foraging styles gave early naturalists fits in trying to classify it. In 1766, Linnaeus started things off by calling it a kind of shrike. In 1920, the naturalist William Henry Hudson wrote that the bird “seems to have studied to advantage the various habits of the Kestrel, Flycatcher, Kingfisher, Vulture, and fruit-eating Thrush; and when its weapons prove weak it supplements them with its cunning.”
  • For U.S. birders, Great Kiskadees belong to a suite of South Texas specialties, along with Green Jays and Altamira Orioles—birds with mostly tropical ranges that extend just north of the Texas border. South of the border, Great Kiskadees are common species through Central and South America.
  • Great Kiskadees are aggressive. They will boldly chase larger animals that attempt to raid their nests, such as monkeys, raptors, and snakes.
  • The Great Kiskadee has a black mask that works like the eye-black that athletes smear beneath their eyes—an adaptation to reduce glare and assist them in hunting in bright light or where light reflects off water.
  • The oldest recorded Great Kiskadee lived in Texas, and was male, at least 6 years, 11 months old.

Habitat


Open Woodland

Great Kiskadees live in thorn-scrub, mesquite-cactus, and elm-ash forests in south Texas, and in tropical deciduous forest elsewhere, typically near clearings or water such as lakes, rivers, or ponds. They do not live in continuous tracts of woodlands. They are also found in human-dominated landscapes, suburbs, and (in the tropics) shade-coffee farms and banana and citrus plantations.

Food


Insects

Great Kiskadees eat both animal prey and fruit. They hunt like a flycatcher, fish like a kingfisher, and forage like a jay. They perch on treetops in open areas, sallying forth to snatch flying insects in midair. They also glean through grass, shrubs, and trees for beetles, grasshoppers, spiders, millipedes, lizards, snakes, and small mice. Near bodies of water, they drop from perches to hover above the water’s surface and pluck prey such as small fish and tadpoles. They also eat fruit from trees, vines, cacti, and sometimes handouts from people. And they’ll boldly steal food from cat and dog dishes.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–5 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
1.1–1.3 in
2.7–3.2 cm
Egg Width
0.8–0.9 in
2–2.3 cm
Incubation Period
15–22 days
Nestling Period
10–12 days
Condition at Hatching
Weak and mostly naked with sparse down, eyes closed.
Nest Description

Both sexes work together to build the nest, gathering grasses, thin twigs, moss, and paper or cotton. They gather these from vegetation while hovering, pick them up from the ground, or sometimes raid them from another bird’s nest. The birds begin by making a cup of soft grasses on a platform and then gradually build up the sides to make a domed roof. The finished nest is a tall, bulky, woven structure about 13–18 inches tall and 10 inches wide with a side entrance. The top of the nest hangs over the entrance hole like an awning.

Nest Placement

Tree

Great Kiskadees choose nest trees in open woodlands, along a forest edge, or in a lone tree within about 100 feet of the forest edge. They usually build their nests in the forks of trees, but sometimes in the upper crown. They like spots along branches dangling over water, also hidden among dense foliage or vines. In south Texas kiskadees nest in trees such as hackberries, elms, and Mexican ash. In the tropics they often nest in bull’s-horn acacias where colonies of stinging ants or wasps also live. Sometimes Great Kiskadees nest in cavities such as old woodpecker holes or Purple Martin houses.

Behavior


Flycatching

Great Kiskadees are very vocal birds, sometimes joining together in choruses of brash kis-ka-dee calls. They can appear quite tame and are not scared off by humans. In fact, they often seek out people in order to find food, whether provided at a feeder or left behind (such as bits of fishing bait on a dock). Despite their general aggressiveness, kiskadees often join mixed foraging flocks of Green Jays and Altamira Orioles in Texas. They defend territory boundaries during the breeding season, mostly through screeching, chasing, and a “wings-up” display in which they rear their wings back and slowly move them up and down in an exaggerated manner. They also flutter their wings at intruders raising the head and neck, lowering the bill, and showing off a yellow crown patch (they do this during courtship as well). Great Kiskadees are monogamous and maintain their pair bond throughout the year and during successive years.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Though they’re specialty birds in the U.S., Great Kiskadees are fairly common throughout their immense range in Central and South America. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 200 million with less than 1% living in the U.S. and 6% in Mexico. The species rates a 5 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and is not on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List. Great Kiskadees have expanded their range in semiarid parts of south Texas, where they have benefited from irrigation, fragmentation of forests, and suburban development.

Credits

Range Map Help

Great Kiskadee Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Backyard Tips

Great Kiskadees readily come to feeders to eat fruit such as bananas. Watch out for these bold birds: they also readily steal other kinds of food, such as bread, peanut butter, and pet food.

Find This Bird

Great Kiskadees are loud, colorful birds, so as long as you’re within their range and in the appropriate habitat, you should have good luck finding them. Look for them in low, open woods particularly near streams and oxbow lakes, where they perch out in the open near the tops of trees. Look for bright yellow movement and a flash of rufous in the wings as the birds fly out after prey. You may not recognize their piercing kiskadee calls at first, but they’re hard to ignore—follow the sound to track down these avian extroverts.

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