Many birders may not necessarily remember the first time or place they experienced seeing a new species. Due to its brilliant coloration, which its name aptly describes, most birders will remember their first experience observing the Vermilion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus). This should not be surprising, for a variety of reasons. Flycatchers are generally not particularly colorful. Many flycatchers have some pale yellow underparts but are otherwise rather unremarkable in color. A few exceptions are worth noting: such as the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (rarely seen west of Texas in the southwest); the Rose-throated Becard (a local rarity, best seen in the Patagonia area); and the Buff-bellied Flycatcher (another rarity, best seen particularly in the Huachuca Mountains). These three birds have some pale red, pinkish, or dull orange coloring, not the more commonly-seen pale yellow exhibited by some of the less colorful flycatchers.
Identification and Understanding Origins of Name
In most flycatcher species, identification of sexes is not as easily discernible as with Vermilion Flycatchers. In most cases, adult males and females of other species exhibit remarkably similar field marks and coloration, making the distinction between the sexes of adults more difficult to easily identify. In the case of vermilions, the adults exhibit quite different appearances. What makes the Vermilion Flycatcher so unusual, color-wise, is the intensity and amount of color the bird possesses. Its scientific name could not be more apt. In Latin, Pyrocephalus, means “fire head.” In Mexico, they are referred to by another wildly descriptive nickname – sangre de toro; “bull’s blood” is the English translation. Its coloration is so striking that, even for such a small (5-6 inches) bird, it can easily be identified at quite a distance, especially the extra bright adult male. Adult males, especially when excited, agitated or during courtship displays, can erect a crest. Females usually have only a blush of pale red, salmon or peach on their bellies. Juvenile females may have pale yellow on their bellies, while male juveniles have irregular blotches of red wherever the adult males have the brightest red. Both adults have a dark eyestripe. Females and juveniles have a white eyebrow. Juvenile males take on their adult plumage by mid-winter.
Photo by Clarisa Friedman
Vermilions are nearly always found around permanent, or seasonal, water sources. In Tucson and the surrounding environs, good locations to find this colorful flycatcher include public parks, golf courses and cemeteries (which usually have timed sprinkler systems that the birds are familiar with). One of our favorite locations to see them is along the Rillito River walking/biking paths. It is a rare day that these birds are not seen when we walk this path. Our two most frequent walks along the Rillito are the stretches between Swan and Craycroft and the area west of Campbell. Surely many other areas along this long pathway would prove to be equally good, but these are the areas that my fiancée Marilyn and I go to regularly when we walk the dog. Vermilions can be found among streamside shrubs in washes, in bottomlands, and near small ponds and cattle tanks. Years ago, my family and I lived on a friend’s horse property, on the Tanque Verde Wash off Wentworth Road. There was a fairly large pond that had ample fish and aquatic life, enough to attract several species of herons and cranes as well as Belted Kingfishers. It was a property of 60+ acres and hosted many other species of birds, as well. Most birds shared this territory without disputes, and I was always fascinated to find that three separate families of Vermilion Flycatchers could be observed there regularly. In fact, when customers asked for the most dependable locations to see these birds, the Tanque Verde Wash along Wentworth Road was a prime location to recommend.
Photo by Diane Poleyquiva
Another distinction to be made about this flycatcher species, compared to most others, is the fact that these birds are quite approachable. In nearly every instance of observing this species, I was able to get quite close to these birds, within 10-20 feet. This is rather exceptional among flycatchers in this respect. Such close observation may actually enable the viewer to identify what prey the bird is hunting or eating. More typically, most brightly colored birds lurk deep amongst the foliage and shadows that provide cover, helping them to avoid being seen by predators. Most flycatchers remain rather inconspicuous, making them harder to spot for this reason. So, the vermilions are unusual among open country birds. They boldly perch in the open: on a shrub; the uppermost bare limb of a tree; or an overhead wire, a protruding branch, or the tops of poles or fence posts. Especially near a water source, these are the best places to locate them. They prefer native trees like mesquite, willow, oak, sycamore, cottonwood and hackberry trees – especially those nearer to water.
Photo by Clarisa Friedman
Vermilions are locally common in their usual habitat, and within their rather restricted U.S. range. So, while we birders who live within their range may take their presence for granted, many birders from elsewhere in the continent have them high on their list of “wanted” birds. Their normal range in North America is limited to a very narrow strip of borderlands in Southern Arizona, Southwestern New Mexico, and along the Rio Grande River in extreme Southern Texas. While the vast majority of this species in the U.S. are non-migrating residents, some become casual winter visitors in Southern California and the Texas Gulf Coast. Their range extends south into most of Mexico, Central America and northern South America. In their U.S. range, they prefer semi-arid and desert environments. In recent years, they may have begun expanding their range. There have been reported and verified sightings far outside their normal range – in southern Colorado and Nebraska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and extreme Northwestern Florida. Perhaps this may be at least partially explained by climate change. Recent studies indicate that their overall numbers are on a slight decline.
Vermilions are mainly insectivorous, especially when breeding, but at times they will eat other foods, such as smaller wild berries and cactus fruits. Most flycatcher species eat a wide variety of insects, but true flies are the staple in their diets. When available or abundant, bees will become the food of choice for vermilions. Other than true flies and bees, vermilions will also prey upon wasps, ants, grasshoppers, beetles, and true bugs. The percentages of each insect type they consume depend on seasonal and regional availability, the size or age of the bird, and its foraging techniques. Vermilion Flycatchers are sit-and-wait predators. They usually pick out an advantageous perch as their observation post for hunting. Quite often, this is the highest bare branch at the top of a native tree. Other posts, which may offer a good view of feeding territory, could include overhead wires, tall poles or fences. They remain on their hunting perch until they sight an insect, then fly out to snatch it in the air – a maneuver referred to as “sallying” or “hawking”-- while in flight. Flycatchers seize food directly in the bill, almost exclusively, but do not scour ground cover in search of hidden prey (e.g., grubs) as do most ground-feeding insectivores. They may fly to the ground for food when they see prey they are interested in, but they do not move along the ground in search of food. They may infrequently hop a step or two when insects are within easy reach, but, more often than not, they will fly from one ground location to another rather than traverse the ground. They may also be seen hawking beneath a cover of trees or tall shrubs, relatively close to the ground, or on occasion gleaning insects or spiders from leaves or branches. However, most of their insect prey is captured in mid-air.
Photo by Clarisa Friedman
Like many other flycatchers, vermilions have rictal bristles - rather stiff but short feathers around the mouth - originally thought to assist in scooping up insects in mid-air. The size and shape of the flycatcher bill is relative to the species, its size, and the size of the prey it hunts and consumes. Most flycatchers that hawk insects in mid-air have relatively large, broad bills that help maximize the chance of seizing at least some part of an airborne insect when they snap the bill shut. The size of the rictal bristles may also show variety, primarily due to the size of the bird and the size of its prey. Most flycatchers that heavily depend on hawking insects in mid-air have larger and more conspicuous bristles and bills than those who depend upon gleaning insects from leaves and foliage. Northern Beardless-Tyrannulets, a related species, are gleaners rather than hawkers; therefore no need for rictal bristles, hence the name “beardless.” Bristles were long thought to act as a funneling device for directing insects into the mouths of aerial hawkers.
However, in recent years observations and laboratory studies appear to demonstrate that this may not be the case. Speculation remains whether the bristles protect the eyes from high-speed collisions with insects or somehow inform the bird about the position or movement of prey held in the bill.
Photo by Clarisa Friedman
Songs, Calls and Displays
Vermilions typically sing during the breeding season but can be heard giving various call notes throughout the year. Their calls include vocalizations that inform other vermilions of their whereabouts; communicate with juveniles and family members about ample food sources; and to alert them to the presence of predators, etc. Their bill-snapping while hawking insects out of the air is often audible, also year-round. Their singing is generally not as musical as many other songbirds, but their elaborate courtship displays can dazzle the observer during their breeding season. The adult male will begin the ritual by calling ecstatic notes of pit-a-see! pit-a-see! or pur-reet! He then flies vertically up to a height of 50 feet or more, exposing the maximum amount of red coloration, crest erected, breast feathers swollen, tail lifted, wings vibrating rapidly, hovering like a butterfly; then slowly fluttering down to mount his receptive mate. Couples are usually monogamous from year to year, with the male infrequently servicing two females. They may keep partners from year to year but often take new partners each breeding season.
Their nests are built in forks of horizontal branches in their preferred native trees. The nests are usually located eight to twenty feet above ground level, sometimes as high as forty to fifty feet. They are usually found near some permanent or seasonal water source such as streams, canals, dry washes, ponds, etc. Nests are generally somewhat flat but cup-shaped, about three inches in diameter, usually sunken down and protected by a deep fork in the branches; and built with a foundation of twigs, pieces of weeds, fine grasses, and rootlets. They are bound together with spider silk and lined with finer, softer materials such as hair, fur, feathers and plant down. Breeding season is generally from March through July, depending on several factors like amount of rainfall and availability of foods. Usually three eggs are deposited. The eggs are white to creamy-colored, heavily marked with dark browns and lavender. Incubation is by the female and lasts about fourteen to fifteen days. The chicks are born altricial. The young chicks will leave the nest about fourteen to sixteen days after hatching. Uncommonly, their nests become host to a single cowbird egg; in Arizona that’s the Brown-headed Cowbird.
This is the time of year to best observe Vermilion Flycatchers, watch their flamboyant displays, observe family life and watch juveniles become fledglings. Because they occupy relatively small territories, it is likely to see the same birds in the same locations on a regular basis. Marilyn and I keep our eyes trained for vermilions while on our Rillito Wash walks. She particularly identifies with this species for several reasons. She considers them her totem bird and vows that if she decides to ever get a tattoo in the future, it will be a Vermilion Flycatcher! And, I told her I would get a matching tattoo in that case!
Photo by Clarisa Friedman