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Greater Pewee Life History


Open Woodlands

Greater Pewees inhabit relatively open pine and pine-oak woodlands in mountains and foothills, normally below 10,000 feet elevation. Important tree species for them in Arizona include Chihuahua pine, Ponderosa pine, and Apache pine (especially large trees with snags for hunting), with understory of Emory oak, Arizona white oak, and in some cases, alligator juniper. In some areas in the United States, they also live in riparian areas at higher elevations, with trees such as Fremont cottonwood, Arizona walnut, and Arizona sycamore. During migration, especially in fall, some Greater Pewees move through lower elevations of mountain canyons, especially along rivers and streams. Birds that winter in the United States are few but typically use lower-elevation pine-oak habitats or riparian corridors. Wintering birds in Mexico live in a wider variety of habitats, from riparian woodlands and brushy areas in lowlands to high-elevation pine and pine-oak woodlands. Nonmigratory populations remain in higher elevations year-round.

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InsectsGreater Pewees eat mostly insects, which they capture in flight by sallying out from a favored perch high in a pine, usually a dead snag. They have been reported to take small fruits (berries) as well. Back to top


Nest Placement

TreeNests are set on average about 30–38 feet high in a tree, usually on a large limb or forked branch of a large pine or other mature tree.

Nest Description

Nests are cups of grass, pine needles, and bark strips, sometimes with feathers, insects, and other plant matter (twigs, pine cone pieces) or lichen added, and wrapped with spiderweb. Nests measure on average about 4.7 inches across and 2.6 inches tall, with interior cup 3 inches across and 1.5 inches deep.

Nesting Facts

Egg Description:Dull white with brown spotting.
Condition at Hatching:Naked and helpless.
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Greater Pewees are large, conspicuous flycatchers, often perched upright on a bare favorite branch or snag high in a pine tree where they carefully watch for flying insects for long periods. When they spot one, they fly out to catch it in flight. Sometimes you can hear the snap of the bill when they are hunting. Like other species of pewee (genus Contopus), they typically return to their original perch to continue hunting. Greater Pewees are known for their conspicuous attacks on other birds within their nesting territories, including woodpeckers, cowbirds, bluebirds, and other flycatcher species, in addition to other Greater Pewees. Both sexes are aggressive, even flying after larger birds to drive them away from the nest, snapping the bill rapidly in a staccato series that sounds like firecrackers. This aggression continues into winter, when pewees defend feeding territories, including fruiting trees, though on occasion they join up with foraging flocks of other woodland birds. However, if a second Greater Pewee joins the foraging flock, the two birds may come into conflict, raising the crest, snapping the bill, calling, and flying in pursuit or clashing physically. In the U.S., wintering birds sometimes sing, which probably serves to mark nonbreeding territory. When Greater Pewees return to the nesting area, they set up breeding territories fairly quickly; the males sing from several perches to attract a mate. This species appears to have large breeding territories, some up to 50 acres. Both adults gather material to build the nest. The female incubates the eggs, and both adults feed the nestlings and fledglings.

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Low Concern

Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 2 million and rates the species a 12 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern. Destruction of mature pine and pine-oak habitat, particularly logging of trees that provide snags for hunting perches, may represent the chief conservation challenge for this little-studied species.

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Chace, Jameson F. and Robert C. Tweit. (1999). Greater Pewee (Contopus pertinax), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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