Eastern Wood-Pewee

This morning – a warm, sunny, blue-sky day, with cicadas and grasshoppers singing loudly – an Eastern Wood-Pewee sang a clear, dreamy puh-wee from the branch of a pecan tree on the edge of a thicket. It’s the first one I’ve heard this season. It sang several times as I watched – flying off to catch an insect and returning to the same branch.

A small, neat gray flycatcher, an Eastern Wood-Pewee looks pale on the throat and around the neck, has dark gray wings with two white wing-bars; a dark, slightly crested head and sometimes a very faint eye-ring. I wasn’t close enough to see an eye-ring, but the song and the flycatcher’s neat, crisp shape were both familiar, and its way of flying is distinctive, too – frequent flights from a branch to catch an insect, focused, quick and efficient, somewhat in contrast to the languid song.

Eastern Wood-Pewees used to be here around our neighborhood all summer, and their sweetly whistled, rising and falling songs – pee-a-weeee; wheeee-oo – were among the most characteristic sounds of summer. Unfortunately, the past few years I’ve heard them only in migration, though during the fall, especially, we usually are lucky enough to hear and see them for three or four weeks, as they pass through. Their fall puh-weee, sung by migrants, is different from the summer song, but the quality is so much the same it’s not hard to recognize the singer.

“Although still considered common in most of its range, this species declined significantly on its breeding grounds over the last 25 years,” says the species account in Birds of America Online, “perhaps in part because of heavy browsing of forests by white-tailed deer.”

In the woods around our neighborhood, the browsing of white-tailed deer has almost completely eliminated the usual vegetation that makes up the understory of the forest, so this change may well be at least one of the reasons Wood-Pewees are missing here in the summers now.

*John P. McCarty. 1996. Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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