Scissor-tailed Flycatcher Life History

Habitat

Habitat GrasslandsScissor-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.Back to top

Food

Food InsectsScissor-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.Back to top

Nesting

Nest Placement

Nest TreeThe 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.

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.

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.
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Behavior

Behavior FlycatchingThe 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.Back to top

Conservation

Conservation Low ConcernScissor-tailed Flycatcher numbers declined by about 31% between 1966 and 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 9.5 million with 92% breeding in the U.S., and 50% spending some part of the year in Mexico. The species rates an 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. Scissor-tailed Flycatcher is not on the 2014 State of the Birds 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.Back to top

Backyard Tips

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

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Credits

North American Bird Conservation Initiative. 2014. The State of the Birds 2014 Report. US Department of Interior, Washington, DC, USA.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Regosin, Jonathan V. 2013. Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, J. E. Fallon, K. L. Pardieck, Jr. Ziolkowski, D. J. and W. A. Link. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, results and analysis 1966-2013 (Version 1.30.15). USGS Patuxtent Wildlife Research Center 2014b. Available from http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley guide to birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, USA.

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