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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.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
5.5–6.3 in
14–16 cm
Wingspan
10.2 in
26 cm
Weight
0.4–0.5 oz
11–14 g
Relative Size
Slightly larger than a Dusky Flycatcher, smaller than a Western Kingbird.
Other Names
  • Pioui de l'Ouest (French)
  • Pibí occidental (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The breeding ranges of the nearly identical Eastern and Western Wood-Pewees overlap only in a very narrow zone in the Great Plains. Despite the birds’ physical similarity, no evidence has ever been found that the two species interbreed in that area—perhaps because their songs sound so different.
  • Where exactly the Western Wood-Pewee goes in the winter is still a mystery. Both Eastern and Western Wood-Pewees migrate to northern South America, but because they look so similar and they don't call much on the wintering ground it's hard to say for certain where each species spends its winter.
  • The scientific name of the Western Wood-Pewee is Contopus sordidulus. Contopus comes from the Greek word kontos which means short and pous which means foot—referring to the relatively short legs on Contopus flycatchers. Sordidulus means dirty or unkempt, a reference to the dusky brown wash to the breast and flanks.
  • The Western Wood-Pewee makes a clapping noise with its bill while chasing and attacking intruders in nest defense.
  • The oldest recorded Western Wood-Pewee was a female, and at least 8 years, 1 month old when she was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in California in 2002. She had been banded in the same state in 1995.

Habitat


Open Woodland

Western Wood-Pewees breed in open woodlands, forest edges, and forests near streams, from sea level to around 10,000 feet elevation. They commonly use forests with larger trees, open understories, and standing dead trees. They also use recently burned forests, as fires often increase the numbers of standing dead trees. Forests may include cottonwood, aspen, ponderosa pine, pinyon pine, and spruce. During migration they use similar types of forests. In winter, they occur in mature tropical forests, second-growth forests, and clearings from the foothills to higher montane forests.

Food


Insects

This flycatcher eats flying ants, bees, crane flies, mayflies, dragonflies, wasps, beetles, and moths. They sit on prominent perches often at the end of a dead branch for long periods waiting for an insect to fly by. They eat most smaller insects in midair, but bring back larger insects to their perch before eating them.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–4 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
0.7–0.7 in
1.7–1.9 cm
Egg Width
0.5–0.6 in
1.3–1.4 cm
Incubation Period
14–15 days
Nestling Period
14–18 days
Egg Description
Creamy white with brown blotches.
Condition at Hatching
Naked with a small amount of whitish down.
Nest Description

The female builds a dense and compact nest out of grasses, plant fibers, bark, and plant down. She uses spiderweb to bind the nesting material together and camouflages the outside of the nest with mosses, bud scales, and insect skins. She lines the inside with fine grasses and feathers. It takes her anywhere from 3 days to 2 weeks to complete the nest, which measures about 3 inches wide and 2.5 inches tall.

Nest Placement

Tree

The male and female follow each other around trying out nest sites by squatting and turning around on branches while calling to each other. Most often they choose a fork in a horizontal branch away from the trunk of a live or dead tree. They nest in cottonwood, aspen, pinyon pine, walnut, sycamore, and other tree species anywhere from near ground level to more than 80 feet above the ground.

Behavior


Flycatching

Western Wood-Pewees are sit-and-wait predators. They perch on exposed branches to wait for an insect to fly by. When they spot one, they fly out, grab it, and return to the same or a nearby perch. Most often they fly out horizontally, going out around 12 feet from their perch, but they also sally upward and occasionally downward to catch prey. During the breeding season, they form monogamous pairs and keep a close eye on their nests. The female stays alert when she is sitting on the nest and the male often perches nearby. After the eggs hatch the female often stands on the rim of the nest to shade the young while keeping an eye out for predators. If an intruder such as a western gray squirrel or a scrub-jay comes near, they chase or attack it while calling and snapping their bill. Males and females stay close to each other during the breeding season, but they are solitary during migration and on the wintering grounds.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Western Wood-Pewee are common, but their numbers declined by over 1% per year between 1966 and 2015, resulting in a cumulative decline of 48%, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 9.2 million, with 59% breeding in the United States, 29% in Canada, and 12% in Mexico. The species rates an 11 out of 20 on the Partners in Flight Continental Concern Score and is not on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List. Western Wood-Pewees appear sensitive to logging that occurs after forest fires on their breeding grounds, and to habitat loss of tropical forests on their wintering grounds.

Credits

Range Map Help

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

Migration

Medium to long-distance migrant.

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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