Wild Ideas: The drab little bird with the distinctive voice

“When the tide of spring migration is at its height, and the early morning woods are bursting with melody, a pensive stranger, clad in soberest olive, takes his place on some well-shaded limb and remarks pê-a-wee, in a plaintive voice and with a curious rising inflection at the end.”

— William L. Dawson, “Birds of Ohio”

Every spring, from somewhere in the woods surrounding my house, I hear this distinctive call of the eastern wood-pewee, which trails off at the end. It truly is “a distinctive sound of Eastern forests in summer,” as All About Birds so rightly characterizes it.

With its camouflaging coloring but easily recognized call, the eastern wood-pewee is usually heard more than seen.
With its camouflaging coloring but easily recognized call, the eastern wood-pewee is usually heard more than seen. CheepShot via Wikimedia

As Arthur Cleveland Bent writes in “Life Histories of North American Flycatchers, Larks, Swallows, and Their Families” about the wood-pewee’s arrival in spring:

“His slow, sweet, quiet, three-note song tells us that he is here, hidden among the leaves, although the bird remains for the most part so high up in the thick foliage that we may not catch a glimpse of him for weeks unless we look sharply — not perhaps until the young are fledged and descend from their lofty nest and begin to wander about with their parents.”

I’ve yet to actually see a wood-pewee, although I’ve pursued the call through the woods many times in vain. That’s not surprising, considering that, despite its loud voice, this is a small (just short of six inches long), drab little bird, with olive-brown blending unevenly into dirty-looking white on its throat and chest, and thin white wing bars. This is so inconspicuous that it is rarely spotted, and its biography in most bird books I have is short — worth reading more for the quality of the writing than anything noteworthy in the bird’s life history.

Like the more-ubiquitous eastern phoebe, the eastern wood-pewee (Contopus virens) is a member of the tyrant flycatcher (Tyrannidae) family. It dines on flying insects and other arthropods almost exclusively (up to 99 percent of the wood-pewees diet), launching its attack from dead branches in the forest canopy, usually at or near the forest’s edge. Not surprisingly, its other common name is “dead-limb bird,” according to “A Natural History of American Birds of Eastern and Central North America,” by Edward Howe Forbush and John Bichard May.

With all that is going on the spring, Dawson writes, the wood-pewee “takes only a languid interest”: “His memory is haunted by an unforgotten sorrow, some tragedy of the ancestral youth, and he sits alone, apart, saying ever and anon as his heart is freshly stirred, pê-a-wee, pê-a-wee.

Then again, as Forbush and May note, flycatchers are not exactly known for their singing ability. The authors quote Dallas Lore Sharp, a late 19th-century author known for his magazine articles on native birds and small mammals and for his books on nature:

“Not much can be said of the Flycatcher family except that is useful — a kind of virtue that gets its chief reward in heaven. . . . A flycatcher knows nothing of its shortcomings. He believes he can sing and in time he will prove it.”

In spring and early summer, the male “often attempts at early morning and occasionally at evening a song of some length which is really quite a creditable effort for a flycatcher,” add Forbush and May. As to temperament, “its plaintive tone is deceptive, for the Wood Pewee evidently is a happy bird,” they write. How the authors arrived at that conclusion is not clear, but Bent underscores the general sanguine nature of the wood-pewee: “it is a seclusive, apparently peace-loving bird, quiet, although very quick in its motions, and seldom asserts itself, being wholly free from the aggressiveness that marks the behavior of some of the larger flycatcher.”

The little wood-pewees step up their game when it comes to raising a family, defending their nests by darting at intruders, and spending a long time raising their young. As with phoebes, they stay with the young for a while after they fledge.

The wood-pewee nests in mixed woods, or in pine plantations, preferring oaks, pines, birches, and maples. Its nest, like the bird itself, blends into the forest well. Made of bark, grasses, rootlets, and other materials and covered in lichen, it is “so inconspicuous that it often looks like a knot on a branch,” according to All About Birds. Bent describes it as “a dainty little structure, harmonizing so closely with the surroundings that our eye may easily pass along the limb to which the nest is bound without detecting it.” The wood-pewee uses spider webs to attach the nest to a tree limb, which itself is often covered with lichen, making the nest even better camouflaged.

The eastern wood-pewee spends winters along the southern coast of the United States down to the northwest quarter of South America, arriving on its breeding grounds in in eastern North America later than some spring breeders. Although International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources lists the species as of “least concern” when it comes to conservation because of its “extremely large range,” IUCN acknowledges that bird counts in the last 40 years indicate that “the population trend appears to be decreasing” for the eastern wood-pewee.

Possible reasons for the bird’s decline, according to some sources, include the loss of forest habitat from conversion of forest to other uses. The increase in white-tailed deer during this time could also be a factor. The deer browse on understory plants that host many of the invertebrates the wood-pewee depends on, and the browsing generally changes the structure of the forest, from floor to canopy.

© 2015 Pam Owen

Fox follow-up

In my last column, on the difficulties of distinguishing the red fox from the gray fox, I mentioned seeing a fox in the dim light of dawn that had both red and gray fur. I thought it was more likely a red by its streamlined build and because reds are more common. However, as Virginia Game and Inland Fisheries biologist Ron Hughes pointed out to me, overall coloring and even shape can be deceptive in sorting out the two species and pointed instead to the tail color as more reliable ID points: typically, the red fox’s is tipped in white, while the gray’s has a dark stripe running down the top. However, as he notes, these traits are not always expressed.

My landlord had reported seeing what is probably the same fox I had seen but in better light. I asked him to keep an eye out for the tail coloring next time he saw the fox. A few days ago he reported seeing white on the tip of the fox’s tail, so, with some caution, I’m going to assume this is indeed a red fox.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 341 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”