flycatcher, common name for various members of the Old World family Muscicapidae, insectivorous songbirds including the kingbirds, phoebes, and pewees. Flycatchers vary in color from drab to brilliant, as in the crested monarch and paradise flycatchers of Asia and Africa. The New World family Tyrannidae (tyrant flycatchers), includes 365 species distributed over the Americas from the Canadian tree limit to Patagonia. Most are arboreal and inconspicuously colored in olive-green, brown, or gray, the species grading into one another almost imperceptibly. They range in length from 31/2 in. to 16 in. (8.7–40 cm), the majority being under 10 in. (25 cm). Flycatchers have large heads, broad shoulders, flattish bills, pointed wings, and small, weak legs and feet. The tails are rounded or shallowly forked, except for that of the scissor-tailed flycatcher of the SW United States, a gray bird with black wings and tail and reddish patches at the wing base, whose long (7–10 in./17.5–25 cm), deeply forked tail enables it to perform aerial acrobatics. Flycatchers characteristically feed by darting after insects from an advantageous perch; the name tyrant reflects their pugnacity toward crows, hawks, and other large birds, which they harass with great determination. Their crown feathers are more or less erectile; in the royal flycatcher of Mexico and Brazil, Pyrocephalus rubineus Mexicanus, also called vermilion flycatcher, they are developed into a flaming crest. Many flycatchers are found near water, e.g., the eastern phoebe, or water pewee ( Sayiornis fusca ), a gray bird named for its plaintive, repetitive call and identifiable by its habit of flicking or bobbing its tail while perched. The wood pewee, genus Contopus, is a shy forest bird. The Say's, black, and San Jose phoebes are Western species. The 9-in. (22.5 cm) eastern kingbird is typical of the kingbird group; it has a dark back, white breast, and white-tipped tail. Kingbirds are also called bee martins, though they actually prefer other insects. The small (under 6 in./15 cm) empidonax flycatchers are all olive-green and are difficult to distinguish; they include the least, Acadian, and alder (or Traill's) flycatchers of the East and the western, Hammond's, Wright's, and vermilion flycatchers of the West. The South American kiskadee dives for fish like a kingfisher. The nesting habits of flycatchers vary; the typical nest is an open cup in a tree, but some nest on buildings and in concealed places, and the great crested flycatcher of E North America is a cavity-nester that habitually lines its nest with cast snake skins. Certain fly-catching warblers, belonging to a different family, are sometimes called flycatchers. Flycatchers are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Aves, order Passeres, families Muscicapidae and Tyrannidae.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.