The Late-Summer Call of an Eastern Wood-Pewee

By nine o’clock this morning the temperature was still barely 60 degrees, and the sky was a gentle blue with high white clouds. Though it was a lovely day, there were surprisingly few birds along the way as I walked through the neighborhood, and at first, no pockets of activity or feeding flocks in the grass or trees. Widely scattered here and there, were the songs, calls, trills and burbling of Carolina Wrens; the caws of American Crows, the cries of Blue Jays, the rattle of Red-bellied Woodpeckers in the woods, and the whinny of a Downy Woodpecker; the trill of a Pine Warbler’s song; the peter-peter songs of Tufted Titmouse and the chatter of a Carolina Chickadee – and then a small bird swooped across the grass on the edge of a yard and up to perch on a low limb of a pecan tree.

It was an Eastern Wood-Pewee, a small, neat flycatcher that used to be a familiar summer bird here in our neighborhood. In more recent years, we see it and hear its song only in migration – especially in late summer and fall. It was perched in full view on the limb, and paused there long enough for a good, clear look. A small gray bird, very trim in appearance and in the way it moves, with dark back and wings, thin white wing bars, off-white throat and belly, and darker gray head in a slight crest. I could just barely see the orange color of its lower bill. As I watched, it swooped down again to capture a flying insect near the grass, and returned to the same spot on the limb. Then it whistled a sweet puh-whee once, twice and even a third time, before I walked on.

I first heard the sweet, summery whistled call of an Eastern Wood-Pewee this season in the last week of August, and since then, have heard it almost every day, and seen one several times, often in this same spot. There seem to be two or three in different areas of the neighborhood. At this time of year, they occasionally will whistle their full pee-a-wee – wheee-oooh summer song, but most often now, they whistle a soft but clear puh-wheee, which may technically be a call, rather than a song.

So the Eastern Wood-Pewee now has become a characteristic late summer bird for us, one of the first migrating songbirds to begin passing through. A very few seem to stay around for two or three weeks or more, and their slurred, whistled calls reflect the mellowing, quieter mood of the season, the scent of fresh-mown grass, the swarms of tiny insects in shafts of sunlight, the fading green of the trees and first few hints of yellowing leaves.

Although still considered common in most of its range, the Eastern Wood-Pewee has “declined significantly on its breeding grounds over the last 25 years,” according to the species account in Birds of North America, “perhaps in part because of heavy browsing of forests by white-tailed deer.” *

Here, in and around our own neighborhood, we have an over-abundance of white-tailed deer, and their browsing has greatly changed the landscape, almost completely clearing out the understory vegetation in the woods. So this may be one reason we’ve lost Eastern Wood-Pewees as familiar nesting birds during the summers here.

*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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