Western Wood-pewee

Bird of the Month: Western Wood-pewee

By Andrew McCormick

PC: Mick Thompson (Western Wood-pewee)

PC: Mick Thompson (Western Wood-pewee)

Scientific Name: Contopus sordidulus

Length 6.25 in

Wingspan 10.5 in

Weight 0.46 oz

AOU Band code WEWP

A bird of open woodlands, the Western Wood-Pewee is widespread in the western United States as far east as the western side of the plains states. It is most often seen calling pee-er from an open branch from which it will also sally forth to catch a variety of insects including flies, bees, wasps, beetles, moths and bugs (Bemis & Rising). Most of the time it will return to the same branch a number of times while foraging, but will also move to a nearby branches. It will sing well into the evening when many other birds have nestled in. 

The Western Wood-Pewee is a fairly nondescript dark gray bird with faint wing bars. Compared to other flycatchers it is about one inch smaller than the Olive-sided Flycatcher and one inch larger than the Empidonax flycatchers and it is most often confused with the Willow Flycatcher (Dunne). It has only the faintest eye ring and a dark brown breast band. It is virtually identical with the Eastern Wood-Pewee. In the areas where these species overlap, the Western Wood-Pewee is best identified by its voice. Its call is a descending, burry pee-er. At time it will also add a short, rough brrt (Alderfer). It is one of the species of birds that has a distinct dawn song sung only before sunrise. This is a peee-pip-pip which is interspersed with its pee-er call (Bemis & Rising). 

The Western Wood-Pewee is one of the subocines, which are birds that do not learn their songs. The song is part of its DNA and young birds sing it well from their first attempts. Experiments have also demonstrated that a number of flycatchers sing their songs when kept in isolation from birth. The larger group of songbirds known as ocines must learn their songs from parents or neighboring birds. 

This pewee shares the genus Contopus, short footed, from the Greek kontos, short and pous, foot, with the Olive-sided Flycatcher, Greater Pewee, and Eastern Wood-Pewee. There is little doubt that these birds were named while in the hand when the lower leg of the bird could be measured. It has the unfortunate species name sordidulus, little dirty one, referring to its dusky plumage (Holloway). 

The Western Wood-Pewee arrives in Washington in May and will breed here. It builds a cup nest in the fork of tree limbs in either conifers or deciduous trees. Usually, three brown or gray spotted, pinkish to whitish eggs are deposited. Incubation lasts about two weeks and first flight occurs at the age of about 21 days. Juvenile birds can be distinguished by their new plumage from adults with feathers well-worn by fall. Fall migration is usually complete by October. Both species of wood-pewee mingle in winter at higher elevations of Central and South American mature tropical forests. Studies indicate there have been some reduction in populations as open woodland areas are taken for development.