How a vermilion flycatcher caught my eye
Sometimes it is difficult to see the beauty in a grey day, but it is always important to be ready for wonder to strike you at any moment. That, at least, is how I felt Sunday morning walking around the edge of the lake at Brazos Bend State Park, located in Needville, Texas. Although the bird sightings had been pretty good, I couldn’t help but feel that many of these birds had been painted in a slightly gloomier light due to the weather. And then my eyes caught sight of the brightest, most unmistakable red dot, resting on a thin branch overhanging a lake.
At first, this vibrant crimson streak looked to be an illusion, a small pinprick from so far away. Upon training my binoculars upon it, however, I realized the image for what it truly was; a positively cute puffball of a bird known as the vermilion flycatcher. What about this bird captured my interest? Well, first of all, let me tell you that it is certainly distinctive. The male of the species, with its black wings and mask, red belly and cap, is so remarkably unique that when I looked up the species in my handy Sibley Guide to Birds, the only note underneath a picture of him is “unmistakable”. However, the feature that kept my interest was this male’s peculiar behavior. Though I was never close enough to hear a sound from him (he proved to be rather skittish), this bird had a rather erratic way of taking off from a branch, circling once, and returning immediately to the same branch. The top of his brilliantly red head, a trait only the males have, would fluff repeatedly up in the chill air. That, at least, I could understand, readjusting the hood of the sweatshirt that was protecting me from the wind and rain. But what could keep a bird rising into the air, diving, and then returning to a seemingly useless, thin branch over and over?
Well, the answer, it turns out, is the answer to many of life’s questions; sex and food run this flycatcher’s erratic motions. The vermilion flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus) is often found perched along the banks of slow moving rivers and still lakes, from Argentina to Texas. While sitting there, the birds will undergo a process commonly known as hawking, wherein the bird will rise swiftly into the air, hopefully to snatch an insect from the air, and return briskly to the same perch (if it is still available). Vermilion flycatchers aren’t unique in this aspect, of course; all flycatchers engage in such behavior, but it doesn’t make it any less remarkable to see! I even read a short paper by Brenda Andrews, Marie Sullivan and David Hoerath describing flycatchers catching and eating small minnows in this way! Isn’t it amazing that such a small little bird can have such versatility in its food sources? Anyways, hawking is sometimes known as “flycatching” just because it’s the process mainly used by these types of little guys.
In the time that I observed this male bird (easy to tell because, like so many birds, the female vermilion flycatchers are not nearly so brilliant), he remained on the same perch for quite a while, until he was suddenly (and rudely, in my opinion), deposed by an upstart eastern phoebe. His perch was taken in the course of about two seconds, while the flycatcher momentarily concerned itself with finding food. My little guy immediately moved to a higher perch about 10 feet behind the first one, and stayed there for the remainder of the time I watched him. Sticking to the same perch seemed pretty important to him, but when stolen away, the vermilion quickly moved on. What gives? Well, it seems that for the flycatcher, capturing and holding onto territory, and showing off its prime positioning is of utmost importance. You see, although that one branch is not suitable for hosting a nest or raising young, it does represent good hunting spots, and obtaining such great hang-out spots is pivotal to a male flycatcher’s success. By holding down the fort and singing its heart out, the flycatcher shows how good its genes will be to the female. Even when it is not mating season (like the time I saw it), the flycatcher will perch on this branch for the benefits of good hunting. By the way, although the male flycatcher is always the sole owner of its singing branch (it doesn’t share that!), it often has several neighbors. A study conducted by Alejandro A. Rios-Chelen and Constantino Macias-Garcia showed that the average vermilion flycatcher neighbors 2.57 other males ; this means that on average, a male’s territories will bump up against two or three other males. This makes sense because many of the displays and calls that are given by male vermilion flycatchers are suspected to be male-male spitting contests of sorts. In an observational study conducted by W. John Smith, many of the displays (chattering, flapping of wings, and so on) were done without any female around. Apparently, it’s important to be bold and have a stick to sit on, even if no girls are watching. So why, if it is important to have a good perch, did the vermilion flycatcher abandon the site to the eastern phoebe? …Well, I suspect it might have had something to do with the fact that the eastern phoebe was quite a bit larger, but I digress.
I have been talking a lot about the males of this species, and I know what you are all thinking: where did all the female birds go? Although they may be less visually vibrant, female vermilion flycatchers still have some pretty interesting behavior. Females are rather good at producing lots of young, but they don’t do it all at once. Many pairs can raise two broods in a season; in one study conducted by Tim Archer, 2 of the approximately 20 pairs he studied probably raised 3 broods in one season(although no DNA testing was done so you can never be sure another male didn’t sneak in)! Can you imagine having 12 young in a year? Although the birds in this case were unbanded (and therefore could be mistaken for one another), the author notes that the female stayed within the same territorial range, and was only visited by one male at one time, so it seems like the pairs are pretty devoted to each other, at least for the season.
In addition to their own babies, flycatchers have to watch out for parasitism by cowbirds. Cowbirds, unlike the flycatchers, do not care for their young and build no nests. Instead, they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, including the vermilion flycatchers. Flycatcher mama is sometimes unable to distinguish the cowbird egg from her own (or is perhaps too afraid that she will destroy her own chick by accident), and so the cowbird chick is raised as her own. Sadly, it turns out that younger flycatcher pairs are more likely to fall prey to this tactic than their older and wiser counterparts. Archer found that out of 14 successful nests (nests that had flycatcher chicks in them), 5 of the nests had been parasitized, but only one of those nests was created by a “senior” pair (older than 2 years). So, it seems that there really is wisdom in age. Or perhaps, it is the ones who are wise to begin with that survive. It isn’t good to assume you know the answer to these sorts of questions! That’s why we have science!
As I left the park that day, I was glad that I had kept my eyes peeled despite the rather depressing weather. I learned a lot about this little red ball, and it was all due to keeping an open mind and eye!
Here are the resources I used for this paper:
Andrews, Brenda J., Marie Sullivan, and J. David Hoerath. 1996. Vermilion Flycatcher and Black Phoebe Feeding on Fish. The Wilson Bulletin. 108(2): 377-378.
This behavior focused on two people observing vermilion flycatchers capturing fish. This is odd since their normal behavior is hawking for insects.
Archer, Tim J. 1996. Observations on Nesting and Display Flights of the Vermilion Flycatcher in Western Texas. The Southwestern Naturalist. 41(4): 443-444.
This paper discusses various nesting behaviors of the vermilion flycatcher. The author suspects that some pairs raise three broods in one mating season. Parasitism by cowbirds occurs as well, especially among younger pairs. Display songs were also discussed.
Ellison, Kevin S. 2008. Nest Reuse by Vermilion Flycatchers in Texas. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology. 120(2): 339-344. Doi: 10.1676/07-026.1.
This paper discusses rates of nest reuse in vermilion flycatchers. Reused nests have a higher rate of survival than new nests. Flycatchers that reused nests had more time to mate.
Rios-Chelen, Alejandro A. and Constantino Macias-Garcia. 2004. Flight Display Song of the Vermilion Flycatcher. The Wilson Bulletin. 116(4): 360-362.
This paper notes that displays may be a male-male contest. Males tend to use the same perch for their songs always and has specific territory to defend and hunt from.
Smith, W. John. 1967. Displays of the Vermilion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinnus). The Condor. 69(6): 601-605.
This paper describes the specific geographic variations in calls and displays in the flycatcher. Although the specifics are not necessary, it’s good to know that the differences occur. The paper also gives a summarization of vocalizations and feather ruffling.
Smith, W. John. 1970. Courtship and Territorial Displaying in the Vermilion Flycatcher, Pyrocephalus rubinus. The Condor. 72(4): 488-491.
This paper describes mating rituals and common calls of the vermilion flycatcher.
The male vermilion flycatcher. Photo by barloventomagico (Public domain).
The female vermilion flycatcher. Photo by ecology web (public domain)
Brazos Bend, the park I was at when looking at these lovely birds. It seems like this photographer came on a much nicer day. Photo by joebibby (public domain).
Map of vermilion flycatcher whereabouts. By Cornell Lab of Orninthology. Public domain.
Graphs of vermilion flycatcher songs. “A” is the normal song heard, “B” and “C” the variations. This shows that even small variations are significant findings for ornithologists; birdwatchers have to be observant! Adapted from Rios-Chelan 2004.