Eastern Wood-Pewee

Contopus virens
Family

Tyrannidae (flycatchers) in the order Passeriformes

Description

Adult upperparts are grayish olive with two whitish wing bars. Usually has a slightly pointy crest at the back of the crown. Underparts are whitish with a dull white throat. The sides and breast are grayish. The bill is black above and dull orange below. Immature birds may have an all-dark bill, like an eastern phoebe, but will have pale wing bars. The persistent PEE-a-WEE, PEE-OO, or a down-slurred PEE-yer, are often sung throughout the day.

Similar species: The eastern phoebe is a little larger and stockier, has a more rounded head that is clearly darker than the other upperparts and contrasts with the pale throat, usually lacks wing bars, bobs its tail more, and has a different, insistent, raspy call. Several groups of flycatchers are found in Missouri, including 2 pewees, 2 phoebes, 3 kingbirds, 5 in the genus Empidonax, the great crested flycatcher, and very rarely, the vermilion flycatcher. Voice and behavior usually are very helpful if not necessary in distinguishing them.

Size

Length: 6¼ inches (tip of bill to tip of tail).

Eastern_wood-pewee_and_nest_3-9-16.jpg

Photo of an eastern wood-pewee, nest, and begging young.
Eastern Wood-Pewee, Nest, And Young
Eastern wood-pewees arrive in Missouri in late April and early May for breeding season.

Eastern_wood-pewee_side_view_3-9-16.jpg

Photo of an eastern wood-pewee perched on a thin branch.
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Adult eastern wood-pewees are grayish olive above, with two whitish wing bars. Note the slightly pointy crest at the back of the crown. The bill is black above and dull orange below.

Eastern Wood-Pewee

Close-up of wood-pewee, showing white-fringed wing feathers
Eastern Wood-Pewee at Riverwoods Park & Trail, Bridgeton

Eastern_Wood-Pewee_7-18-18.jpg

Photo of an eastern wood-pewee, perched on a twig, singing
Eastern_Wood-Pewee
Eastern wood-pewee: slight point on back of head, gray upper bill, orangish bottom bill, whitish throat.
Habitat and conservation

Common summer resident in forest openings, open woodlands, pastures with scattered trees, and forest edges. Forages by sallying from a branch to catch flying insects. This wood-pewee often perches higher in trees compared to other flycatchers. The distinctive call, and its habit of returning right back where it was perched earlier, will help you locate and identify it.

Foods

Like other flycatchers, eastern wood-pewees perch on a branch offering a clear view of the area around them. When an insect flies by, the bird flits out, snatches it from the air, then returns to its perch. It also picks insects from bark and other surfaces, fluttering and hovering as it does. They eat weevils and bark beetles (pests of gardens and trees), plus horse-, house-, and robber flies, bees, wasps, ants, moths, caterpillars, and more. They also eat a small amount of berries and seeds.

Distribution in Missouri

Statewide.

Status

Common summer resident. Continent-wide, populations have been declining, about 45 percent since the middle 1960s. This gradual decline may be caused by some combination of an increase in deer populations in some parts of its breeding range (with the deer’s browsing altering the habitat and available insect food of the pewees), and a loss of habitat in its South American wintertime territory.

Life cycle

Eastern wood-pewees arrive in Missouri in late April and early May. Their small cup nests, woven from grass and other fine materials and well-camouflaged with lichens, are positioned on tree branches. Clutches comprise 2–4 eggs, which are incubated 12–14 days. Helpless upon hatching, the young fledge just 16–18 days later. There is one brood a year. With nesting completed, they leave our state in September to spend winter in South America.

Human connections

Pewees and other flycatchers arrive in our state in spring, just in time to help control populations of the many insects that are out and about in our warm seasons. They do the work of a pest-control service, but for free, and without toxic chemicals. Their sighing songs add grace to their work.

Ecosystem connections

Forest trees benefit by the limits pewees place on populations of bark beetles and other tree pests. Pewees fly to North America in order to take advantage of our many protein-rich insects for feeding their hungry nestlings. They fly south again when winter puts an end to the insect season.