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Dawn Songs Of the Flycatcher
by Alexander Skutch

Editor's note: Visually, the family of birds know as the tyrant flycatchers contains [with some striking exceptions] some rather drab customers, with an emphasis on the grays, browns, and greens. For the recordist in spring, however, the flycatchers can be anything but drab. Anyone who has trained a parabola on a feisty Olive-sided Flycatcher during an NSS recording workshop at Yuba Pass, and recorded a hearty "hip-three-beers," can attest to this. But the real prize for a recordist can come when he or she awakens before a spring sunrise, and seeks out the special dawn song of certain flycatcher species. Even common species, such as the Eastern Wood Pewee, or the western Black Phoebe, can deliver vibrant dawn performances one would suspect them incapable of from only hearing their vocalizations later in the day. In this issue of Naturesounds, distinguished tropical ornithologist Alexander Skutch shares some insights on these dawn virtuosos, based on excerpts from his forthcoming book "Life of the Flycatcher."

The great order of passerine birds (about half the world's avian species) contains two suborders, the oscines and the suboscines, or Tyranni. The former is the larger, and consists of the true songbirds (thrushes, wood-warblers, vireos, orioles, and many others) who continue to sing through much of the day. With simpler vocal organs, the suboscines (American flycatchers, manakins, cotingas, antbirds, and others) tend to sing less melodiously and continuously. Among these less-brilliant singers the American (or tyrant) flycatchers, with about 380 species, are the largest avian family confined to the New World. Although many of them are voluble birds, with a variety of notes appropriate for different occasions, their sustained singing is heard mainly before sunrise. Their chants, melodious or monotonous, are dawn songs, or, perhaps more accurately, twilight songs, for a minority of species repeat them as night approaches. These utterances are rarely heard in full daylight, unless the birds are engaged in a dispute or are otherwise highly excited.

Of flycatchers' twilight songs, probably the most familiar to birdwatchers in eastern North America is that of the Eastern Wood-pewee. Its dawn song has been praised for its conformity to standards of Western classical music. Around half past three o'clock on an early summer morning in the eastern U.S., the small, grey bird mounts to a high perch and repeats his simple recital with variations that decrease monotony. One to whom I listened while moon and stars still shone brightly repeated his phrases with emphasis alternately on the first and second syllables, peee' -we and pe-we'. He continued his chant for about three quarters of an hour, or until the rising sun silenced him. Throughout the day a wood-pewee sounds the plaintive call for which he is named, but he does not ordinarily sing again until, in the evening twilight, he performs more briefly than at dawn. Among other dawn-singers of temperate North America are the Eastern Kingbird, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Eastern Phoebe, and Great-crested Flycatcher.

To hear these northern flycatchers sing, one must arise early on spring and summer mornings. In the tropics, where the sun rises much later than in summer at middle and high latitudes, one need not leave his bed so inconveniently early to hear dawn songs - which is one reason I have listened to so many of them, and have been impressed by their great diversity. In tone, the dawn songs of tropical flycatchers range from melodious to harsh. They suggest that the singers are in placid, cheerful, mournful, or angry moods. Because at low latitudes the interval between daybreak and sunrise is much shorter than at high latitudes, the dawn singing of the tropical birds is usually less prolonged than that of birds farther north or south.

Of the flycatchers' songs that I have heard in the dim light of dawn, those of the big, yellow-breasted species of Myiodynastes are exceptionally melodious. In spring the Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher repeats tirelessly, in a soft, liquid voice, tre-le-re-re, tre-le-re-re, often continuing for more than a quarter of an hour with scarcely a pause. It is hard to believe that a bird who sings so coolly and serenely at daybreak is the same who, later in the day, shouts with high-pitched, excited notes, often seeming to call weelyum, weelyum, like an ancient dame screaming in a cracked voice for her distant grandson.

As is appropriate for one of the largest of the flycatchers, the Boat-bill has one of the loudest, most stirring songs. High in a tree in the gray dawn, he repeats a ringing note that sound like cheer, punctuated at irregular intervals by a slurred bo-oy.

For quaintness, no song I have heard equals that of the small Tufted Flycatcher that ranges through the highlands from northern Mexico to Bolivia. In a high, thin voice, a Tufted Flycatcher in Guatemala repeated insistently de bee, de bee, de bis a de bee ... One of a different race in Costa Rica poured out his notes too rapidly for me to count.

Contrasting with the Tufted Flycatcher's merry celebration of the dawn, the tiny Mistletoe Flycatcher (in lists disparagingly called the Paltry Tyrannulet) seems to greet the new day with a dirge. Yer-de-de, yer-de-de he whispers again and again, then adds a faint, quavering pe-pe-pe ... the most shrinking, melancholy of all the dawn songs I have heard.

Unlike the foregoing flycatchers, the Yellow-bellied Elaenia, widespread in tropical America, seems to awake in an angry mood. While stars still twinkle brightly overhead and only the paleness of the eastern sky presages the approach of day, or even by moonlight, a prolonged, harsh weer reveals that he has awakened amid a thicket.

After several repetitions, this drowsy note is followed by a hard we-do that the elainia repeats for many minutes, diversifying his declamation only by an occasional more vehemently assertive WE-DO. WE-DO, we-do, we-do, we-do, we-do, WE-DO, we-do ... he proclaims interminably, until the drowsy listener is driven to concede that he-does, whatever that may be.

To help convey the character of these dawn songs, I have told how they impressed me. However, I am not sure that the Mistletoe Flycatcher who sounds so forlorn is more depressed than the tufted Flycatcher who seems so vivacious, nor that the Yellow-bellied Elaenia who sounds so vexed is in a less tranquil mood than the Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher who carols so serenely.

In Life of the Flycatchers, I give additional examples of the many dawn songs I have heard, and tell about other vocalizations of these birds with expressive, if not always melodious, voices.

Articles from Spring 1997

  Dawn Songs of the Flycatcher

Poetic Expression

Letter From the Chair 5/97

Editor's Note: The NSS Website

The Gathering Place

Why Do We Sound Record? - A View From Kathy Turco

Nature Sounds Newsletter

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