For the Birds Radio Program: Rio Grande Valley Scissor-tailed Flycatcher Spectacular

Original Air Date: Nov. 14, 2002 Rerun Dates: Nov. 7, 2013; Nov. 5, 2008; Nov. 16, 2007; Dec. 2, 2004; Nov. 12, 2004

When a bus broke down during a field trip for the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers saved the day.

Duration: 3′54″


The Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival is one of the hugest yet most well-organized birding event I’ve ever attended. But every now and then things go wrong with even the best plans. At the tail end of one field trip to a ranch about 40 minutes from Harlingen, our bus got hopelessly stuck in the mud on the shoulder of a dirt road, and ended up tilted at about a 45-degree angle. The engine was still running, the air conditioning still working, but the bus was dangling too precariously close to falling on its side for us to remain inside while we waited almost two full hours for a replacement bus.

This was in open scrub habitat, with only scrawny trees nearby for any protection from the hot midday sun and 90-degree temperatures. This could have made for a dismal situation, except that we happened to be in the midst of a flock of one of the most beautiful birds in the world. How could I possibly be gloomy or uncomfortable while surrounded by a dozen Scissor-tailed Flycatchers?

These ethereal birds, lovely pearl gray with pink and salmon colored wing-linings, have a delicate body about the size of an Eastern Kingbird, but with tails longer than their entire bodies. If the length of the tail is dramatic, the way they flare it as they dart and weave through the air, sometimes even somersaulting forward and backward, is genuinely breathtaking. As I watched them snatching insects and returning to their perches on a nearby barbed wire fence and the power line right overhead, I had trouble remembering that we weren’t here by desire. If we had to bake in the Texas sun, vultures circling overhead, at least I would have died happy. When the new bus finally arrived, the air conditioning felt pretty damed wonderful, but I still felt a wistfulness as we drove off, and couldn’t help but look back at these beautiful birds wishing I could have spent just a little more time with them.

The Scissor-tailed Flycatcher is the state bird of Oklahoma, the center of its breeding range. Driving down I-35 in summer, you first start noticing scissor-tails in central Kansas, and from that point onward the drive is pleasant indeed. They perch on fences, wires, and bare branches, in full view, and seem especially abundant at rest stops.

Although they eat strictly insects, so have no interest in humans, Scissor-tails aren’t particularly shy around us, so they are easy to observe and enjoy wherever they live. And beyond their beauty, their grace and power as they catch large insects is impressive and even a bit disconcerting. They often catch huge beetles, then carry them back to their perch, and bash them a bit before eating them. They must also eat a lot of lovely butterflies if that saying, you are what you eat, is true.

Wisconsin and Minnesota have had plenty of records of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers over the years, and not only in the southern parts of the states–individuals have been seen as far north as Ely, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin. These out-of-place creatures are an unexpected gift from the earth. But whether a northern rarity or a commonplace southern bird, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers are truly one of the treasures that make this earth so splendid and rich a place to be.