by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate
Born Free USA's Canadian Representative
Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)
In celebration of National Bird Day 2014, Barry Kent MacKay, Senior Program Associate for Born Free USA and lifelong bird enthusiast, is writing a special six-part blog series in December and January where he will describe some of his favorite avian species. Below is the third installment.
There are at least 429 species of birds in the family Tyrannidae, the so-called Tyrant-Flycatchers. All of them are restricted to the Western Hemisphere, ranging from northern Alaska to the tip of Tierra del Fuego, and including the West Indies, the Galapagos Islands (where two species breed), and the Falkland Islands (where one species breeds). There are probably quite a few “hidden” species – now considered subspecies of known species, but who should probably be considered full species, as defined by biologists. The term “tyrant” derives from the fact that many, including the Eastern and Western Kingbirds so familiar to us across nearly all of temperate North America, will boldly chase much larger birds, such as hawks and crows, from their nesting territories.
It is safe to suggest that the majority of us have not heard of most species of Tyrant Flycatchers, given that so many species are small, drab of colour, and found in Central and South American forests and jungles. In honor of this year’s National Bird Day, we are, in part, featuring the family as representing birds you don’t see in zoos or pet stores because, when caught for the international trade in “exotic” birds, they tend to die. The other two species, the Royal Flycatcher and the Long-tailed Tyrannulet, are not well known, generally speaking.
But it is different with the Vermilion Flycatcher. If you live in the desert country of eastern California, Arizona, New Mexico, or western Texas, you probably know, and enjoy the sight of, this brilliantly colored little bird. The male is an intense scarlet-red, tempered by a sooty blackish-brown back, wings, and narrow mask through the eyes. He is not shy, often sitting on the tips of ocotillo wands or on top of cacti or yucca leaf blades, and darting up into bright blue skies in search of flying insects. The female is more modestly hued, with a brown back and creamy white underparts, with fine streaking on the breast, and a variable degree of reddish or pink wash on the belly.
These little birds have a huge range that extends south as far as the northern Pampas of Argentina. A distinct subspecies is found only in the Galapagos Islands, as is a second distinct subspecies, restricted to a single island, San Cristobal (Chatham).
The nest is cup-shaped and rather unsubstantial-looking. Two or three eggs are laid, and only the female incubates, though dad will help mom to feed the nestlings.
The birds in the U.S. and northern Mexico will migrate south into tropical Central America for the winter. Birds from the southernmost latitudes of their range will also migrate toward the tropics in the austral autumn. The biggest threat they face is loss of habitat, but there is indication that they adapt to some change, and can be found on golf courses and in parks. Like other members of the family, they are aggressive in chasing larger birds from near their nests, appearing as fiery of temperament as they are in color.