Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Tyrannus forficatus

  • Version: 2.0 — Published January 30, 2013
  • Jonathan V. Regosin

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Figure 1. Distribution of the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.
Adult male Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Ft. Worth, TX, 4 May.

One of the most striking birds in North America, the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher breeds mainly across the Southern Great Plains. Adult males, such as this one, have very long, forked tails, bright salmon-pink underparts, and specially modified outer primaries that are very narrow at the tip. The following is a link to this photographer's website:

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology dedicates this account in honor of Ellen Adelson, member of the Lab of Ornithology's Administrative Board.

Perched conspicuously on a wire or fence, its long tail trailing, the elegant Scissor-tailed Flycatcher is a common sight throughout the south-central United States and northeastern Mexico during spring and summer. It favors open areas-savanna, grassland, shrubland, and agricultural and urban habitats-with sufficient perches for feeding and trees and shrubs for nesting. It forages by snatching insects from the air in graceful swoops, and by perch-to-ground flights. Apparently well suited to life in open grasslands, it eats mostly grasshoppers (Orthoptera) and beetles (Coleoptera), more so than other North American flycatchers.

Wintering primarily in southern Mexico and Central America (Figure 1), this flycatcher is a relatively short-distance migrant with a long breeding season (April–August). Individuals defend breeding territories and typically forage alone or in pairs. The mating system of this species is best characterized as socially monogamous; the female constructs the nest and incubates alone, but the male helps feed the young. Nest sites are highly variable, but the cup-shaped nest is typically found in an isolated tree or shrub. Hot, sunny weather on the breeding grounds is occasionally broken by a severe thunderstorm or tornado, which can destroy large numbers of nests, significantly reducing reproductive output on a local scale in some years.

Although this species shares many similarities in behavior, vocalizations, and morphology with other kingbirds in the genus Tyrannus, only the Scissor-tailed and Fork-tailed (Tyrannus savana) flycatchers have dramatically elongated tail feathers. While long tails are characteristic of both males and females, tail length is highly variable relative to other morphological traits; males, on average, have much longer tails than females.

Since the publication of Bent's (Bent 1942b) life history of the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, various studies in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas have focused on breeding biology and social organization (Fitch 1950, Regosin and Pruett-Jones 1995), communication (Smith 1966d), foraging ecology (Foreman 1978), nest-site selection (Nolte and Fulbright 1996), and the comparative reproductive biology of this species and other kingbirds (Murphy 1988b). To date, however, only one study has involved capturing and color-marking individuals (Regosin and Pruett-Jones 1995), and little research has been conducted on the wintering grounds of this species, or on its southern breeding grounds in Mexico. Many intriguing questions about the behavioral ecology, population ecology, communication system, and phylogeny of this species remain unanswered.

Recommended Citation

Regosin, J. V. (2013). Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.