For the Birds Radio Program: Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
One of the most beautifully graceful birds on the planet, a bird who serves as the state bird of Oklahoma, is the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. This exquisite bird’s body looks rather like an oversized Eastern Kingbird, which makes sense because it belongs to the same genus, Tyrannus. But the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and the Fork-tailed Flycatcher differ from the other birds in that genus in having dramatically long tail feathers—in many adult males the tail is noticeably longer than the entire body. The tail feathers on Scissor-tails flare a bit outward, while the tail feathers of Fork-tails flare inward and end in sharper points. Scissor-tails specialize in hunting and feeding on insects, especially grasshoppers, crickets, and beetles, in open habitat such as prairies, savannas, and shrublands. They perch on fences, fenceposts, signs, and shrubs, sallying out to pluck insects out of thin air or sometimes the ground. If they are beautiful when perched, with their pearly gray feathers and shockingly long tail feathers, they’re breathtaking when they fly out, opening and closing their long tail feathers like a scissors and showing off the salmon pink wing linings. And when I say they’re breathtaking, I’m being quite literal. The first couple of day when I was in Oklahoma, more than once I found myself feeling faint while I was watching Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and suddenly realized I’d been holding my breath. Of course, we humans somehow manage to quickly acclimate to even the most exquisitely beautiful sights, and so within two or three days I was merely smiling to see them, and by the end of my visit was driving right by most of them like a true Oklahoman. Even Rodgers and Hammerstein managed to take them for granted enough that they don’t even mention this lovely bird in the musical Oklahoma! even though they mention larks and that hawk making lazy circles in the sky.
Scissor-tailed Flycatchers are found during the breeding season in a compact range that includes pretty much all of Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, along with the Texas border area of Mexico and a little slice of Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana. But this is one of those species with individuals that wander far from the regular range, so I’ve seen them a few times each in Minnesota and Wisconsin. If it’s thrilling to see them in their home range, where we expect to see them, it’s shocking to see one up here—the combination of beauty and surprise to see one make seeing this kind of rarity the most awe-inducing of all. Even when away from their normal range, they seek out open habitat, so you’re more likely to spot one along a fence in a pasture then in any forest. Fork-tailed Flycatchers range from southern Mexico through Central and South America to Argentina, but they, too wander occasionally, and have both been recorded in Minnesota and Wisconsin, though far less often than Scissor-tails. The two species are easy to distinguish—the Scissor-tail’s head is exquisitely whitish pearl, with soft gray wings—around the edges of the wings you can often see a hint of the salmon pink that displays so beautifully when the bird takes flight. Fork-tails are two-toned black and white birds, the head, cheeks, and back black, with the throat and underside pure white.
Because they nest in the open in the part of North America most vulnerable to tornadoes, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher nests are often destroyed by twisters and other violent storms. Eggs and nestlings are often killed and eaten by snakes, crows, and other predators, and Western Kingbirds sometimes chase Scissor-tails away from their nests and steal nest materials or even appropriate the nest to use intact themselves. Although the population is doing well, it’s apparently tough to be a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. But you wouldn’t know that to see one flying about with grace and abandon, flaring its dramatic tail and showing off those gorgeous red wing linings, or to watch one perched on a fence, its intelligent eyes taking in the scenery and noticing every tiny movement with what looks like interest, not desperation. This truly is one of the most beautiful birds on a planet teeming with beautiful birds. And seeing them along just about every road and in every town gives Oklahoma a luster that will never tarnish. I took a bazillion photos of them while I was in Oklahoma. Sadly, I didn’t get a single one of the birds in flight—so oh, darn—I guess I’ll just have to go back again, and again.