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Western Wood-Pewee

Contopus sordidulus ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: TYRANNIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Open woodlands throughout the West come alive when Western Wood-Pewees return for the summer. These grayish brown flycatchers use exposed branches as their stage; they put on quite a good show, sallying back and forth while nabbing flying insects with stunning precision. They sit tall when perched, showing off their partially buttoned gray vest while singing a burry and nasal version of their name all summer long. They look nearly identical to their eastern cousin, the Eastern Wood-Pewee, but they sing a burrier song.

Keys to identification Help

Flycatcherlike
Flycatcherlike
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Western Wood-Pewees are medium-sized flycatchers with a peaked crown that gives their head a triangular shape. These long and thin flycatchers perch upright in the canopy. They have long wings, a feature that helps separate them from similar looking Empidonax flycatchers.

  • Color Pattern

    Western Wood-Pewees are grayish brown overall with 2 pale wingbars. The underparts are whitish with smudgy gray on the breast and sides that can make them look like they are wearing a partially buttoned vest. The face is dark grayish brown with little to no eyering. The bill is mostly dark with yellow at the base of the lower mandible. Juveniles are similar to adults but have buffy wingbars.

  • Behavior

    Pewees fly out from prominent perches to catch flying insects, repeatedly returning to the same or a nearby perch. When they return they typically flutter their wings before settling down. High on their perch, they constantly turn their heads side to side to have a look around, but they don't flick their tails like some flycatchers.

  • Habitat

    Western Wood-Pewees use open woodlands, forest edges, and forests near streams with large trees, open understories, and standing dead trees. Common tree species include pinyon pine, cottonwood, sycamore, ponderosa pine, aspen, and spruce. They tend to avoid dense forests.

Range Map Help

Western Wood-Pewee Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

Similar Species

Similar Species

Eastern Wood-Pewees look nearly identical to Western Wood-Pewees. Fortunately, their breeding ranges hardly overlap and their calls are different—the best way to separate them. Western has a harsh, buzzy peer instead of the slurred whistled pee-ah-wee of the Eastern. Eastern Wood-Pewees tend to have more yellow on the lower bill and have paler wingbars, but the differences are subtle and not always reliable. If you find a silent pewee on migration or on the wintering grounds, it’s probably best left unidentified. Olive-sided Flycatchers are larger than Western Wood-Pewees with a more distinct and well-delineated dark vest, contrasting strongly with a white center. They also occasionally shows white tufts on the sides of the rump, and have a bigger bill. Wood-pewees look similar to Empidonax flycatchers such as Willow or Dusky Flycatchers, but pewees have longer wings and plainer faces without the distinct eyering seen on most Empidonax flycatchers. Wood-pewees also have a habit of repeatedly returning to the same or nearby perch in the canopy, something that Empidonax flycatchers don't tend to do. Of all the Empidonax flycatchers, Willow Flycatchers are most similar to Western Wood-Pewees, but Willows have wider and whiter wingbars and a more greenish-olive cast. Dusky Flycatchers have a distinct eyering that pewees lack, a rounded (not peaked) head, and a shorter bill compared to a pewee. Pacific-slope and Cordilleran Flycatchers have a teardrop-shaped eyering not seen on pewees and are more greenish-olive with a yellowish chest.

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

A quick listen in almost any forest patch should reveal the burry, slightly descending peeer of a Western Wood-Pewee throughout the spring and summer months. To find out where the song is coming from, look up into the canopy and pay special attention to bare branches where this small, upright flycatcher often perches. Unless they’re silhouetted against the sky, their gray bodies tend to blend into the branches. Watch for one to sally out and back on a quick flight to chase down an insect. Use its habit of returning to the same perch to your advantage to focus in on the Western Wood-Pewee as it returns to its perch.

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