Bent Life History of the Vermilion Flycatcher

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.

Bent Life History for the Vermilion Flycatcher - the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.

VERMILION FLYCATCHER
PYROCEPHALUS RUBINUS MEXICANUS
Sclater

HABITS


The bird lover, traveling in the hot, semiarid, or desert regions in our extreme Southwestern States or Mexico, will receive one of the thrills of those interesting regions when he sees for the first time this brilliant, flaming gem, with his prominent crest of fiery scarlet and his equally bright scarlet-red breast. Pyrocephalus. firehead, is a good name for it. One looks for somber colors in the denizens of the desert and is, indeed, surprised to see this outburst of gleaming color, which seems to outshine even the most brilliant scarlet flowers of the springtime desert. We found it to be an abundant and conspicuous species in all the lower valleys of southern Arizona, especially so in the valley of the San Pedro River, where willows and cottonwoods with thickets of smaller trees and underbrush grew along irrigating ditches, separating the fertile areas from the more arid surroundings; we also found them near the wooded banks of other streams and along the dry washes on the plains where these extend outward from the mountains; but we seldom saw them even in the mouths of the canyons and never at higher altitudes.

Spring: Although a few individuals may remain throughout the winter, the vermilion flycatcher is mainly a summer resident in southern Arizona. Major Bendire (1895) says that the "first migrants usually return about March 1, the males preceding the females about a week, and by the 10th of the month both sexes are common."

Courtship: When we arrived in its haunts in April, the males were busy with their courtship flight songs, a curious and most brilliant display. Starting from his perch on the top of some tall weed stalk, or low dead branch, he mounts upward 20, 30, or even 50 feet, in an ecstasy of excitement, his fiery crest erected, his glowing breast expanded, his tail lifted and spread, and his wings vibrating rapidly, as he hovers like a sparrow hawk in rising circles; and at frequent intervals he pours forth a delightful, soft, twittering, tinkling love song, all for the delectation of his chosen mate, clad in somber colors and hidden in the foliage below; then slowly he flutters down to claim her, and the two fly off together, unless perhaps some other more fortunate suitor has won her. William Beebe (1905) has expressed it very well as follows:

Up shoots one from a mesquite tree, with full, rounded crest, and breast puffed out until it seems a floating ball of vermilion: buoyed up on vibrating wings. Slowly, by successive upward throbs, the bird ascends, at each point of vibrating rest uttering his little love song: a cheerful ching-tink-a-le,-ti'nk! ching-tink-a-Zetinki which is the utmost he can do. When at the limit of his flight, fifty or seventy-five feet above our heads, he redoubles his efforts, and the ckin.~is and the trn1,~a rapidly succeed each other. Suddenly, his little strength exhausted, the suitor drops to earth almost vertically in a series of downward swoops, and alights near the wee gray form for which he at present exists. He watches eagerly for some sign of favor, but a rival is already climbing skyward, whose feathers seem no brighter than his, whose simple lay of love is no more eager, no more tender, yet some subtle fate, with workings too fine for our senses, decides against the first suitor, and, before the second bird has regained hIs perch, the female flies low over the cactus-pads, followed by the breathless performer.

Nesting: The nests that we found in Arizona were in willows or sycamores, in horizontal forks, at heights ranging from 8 to 20 feet from the ground, generally not far from an irrigation ditch, stream, or other body of water. Other nests have been found there in cottonwoods, oaks, mesquites, paloverde, and hackberry trees. Mr. Dawson (1923) mentions nests as high as 40 and even 60 feet above ground. Dr. Joseph Grinnell (1914b) found a nest in the Colorado Valley that "was fifty-four inches above the ground, saddled on the bare forking branch of a dead mesquite standing in an open area thirty-five yards from the river bank." And Dr. J. C. Merrill (1878) says that in southern Texas "the nests are usually placed upon horizontal forks of ratama-trees, growing upon the edge of a prairie, and rarely more than six feet from the ground."

With the exception of one nest, in the Thayer collection, which was evidently built on a drooping limb of a sycamore tree and was supported by upward-slanting twigs, all the nests that I have seen or read about were placed in horizontal crotches or forks, generally on rather small limbs. The nest is a flat, well-made structure, usually sunken well down into the fork, so that its rim projects very little above the supporting branch and is very inconspicuous; as viewed from below or from one side it appears like a slight enlargement on the branch, and the materials of which it is made add to the deception.

The foundation and much of the body of the nest consist of short pieces of dead twigs, 1 to 3 inches in length; mixed with these are finer twigs, shreds and pieces of weed stalks, fine grasses, rootlets, and other plant fibers, bits of dry leaves and lichens, fine strips of inner bark, cocoons, and spider webs; the exterior is often, but by no means always, profusely decorated with small bits of lichens; the whole structure is firmly bound together and anchored to the branch with spider webs. The lining consists of finer pieces of similar material, plant down, horsehair, cow's hair, fur, and feathers, with occasional bits of thread or string. Among the feathers used are those of doves, the desert quail, and the yellow feathers of the Arkansas kingbird; some nests have very few small feathers in the lining, and others are profusely lined or decorated with larger feathers.

The outer diameter of the nest usually varies from 3 to 21/2 inches, rarely ~'/2, and its height from 2 inches to 1 inch; the inner cavity is 2 to 13A inches in diameter, and is only 1 inch or less in depth.

Eggs: Three eggs seem to constitute the usual set for the vermilion flycatcher, though sometimes only two are laid and rarely four. The eggs are quite distinctive, being very boldly marked in striking contrasts. They are ovate or short-ovate, sometimes rounded ovate, and are lusterless. The ground color varies from pure white to creamy white, or rarely "cream color." They are usually heavily marked, chiefly near the larger end, with very dark browns, "sepia," "bone brown," or "clove brown," and with underlying, smaller blotches or spots of pale shades of drab or lavender. Occasional eggs are more evenly marked with small spots all over the surface, and in some the markings are concentrated in a well-defined wreath. The measurements of 50 eggs average 17.4 by 13.1 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 19.0 by 12.7, 18.0 by 14.2, 15.0 by 12.7, and 16.3 by 12.5 millimeters.

Young: The incubation period is said to be about 12 days. This duty is performed mainly by the female, although Bendire (1895) says that "the male assists to some extent, as I have on two occasions seen one sitting on the eggs." He also says: "I believe two broods are occasionally raised in a season. On June 6 I found a nest of the Vermilion Flycatcher in a small grove of cottonwood trees, with no other shrubbery nearer than 600 yards; it was placed on a horizontal fork of one of these trees, about 20 feet from the ground, and contained three fresh eggs; close by the male was feeding a full-grown young bird; no other pair appeared to occupy this grove, and it seems very probable that it belonged to these birds. The fact that I also found fresh eggs as late as July 16 further strengthens this supposition." Mrs. Wheelock (1904) writes:

On April 24 the first egg was laid, and one each day thereafter until there were three. Twelve and a half days were required for Incubati on, and during this time I never saw the male nearer to the nest than six feet. The almost naked nestlings were salmon-pinkish; and, as in the case of most newly hatched birds, the eyes were covered with a membrane. On the fourth day this parted in a slit, giving them a comical, half-awake look, while grayish down stood out thickly on the crown and along the back. On the tenth day they were fairly feathered, but remained in the nest until the fourteenth and sixteenth days, when one and two, respectively, fluttered out on untried wings. The father took charge of the one that left home first, while the patient mother fed and coaxed the lazy ones.

Plumages: Mrs. Wheelock (1904) describes the almost naked nestlings as salmon-pinkish, with grayish natal down standing out thickly on the crown and along the back. But Mr. Dawson (19Q3) says that "the chicks are black for a few days after hatching, with some outcropping of white down."

The young bird in juvenal, first plumage differs considerably from the adult female; the upper parts are grayish brown, more goldenbrown on the rump, and the feathers are margined with pale buff or whitish, giving a scaled appearance; the median and greater wing coverts, the secondaries, and the tertials are margined with pale buff; the outer web of the outer tail feather is pale buff or whitish; the breast and sides of the abdomen are thickly marked with rounded spots of brownish gray, instead of being streaked as in the adult female; the under parts are otherwise white, tinged with pale yellow posteriorly. This plumage is apparently worn for only a short time, and is evidently replaced by a complete postjuvenal molt early in the fall. I have seen a young male completing this molt on October 27; it has completed the body molt, but is still molting the wings and tail.

In this, the first winter plumage, the sexes begin to differentiate; young males are like the females at first, but they soon begin to acquire more or less red on the under parts and in the crown; I have seen a series of young males, taken in October, November, December, February, and March, showing the progress of this change. Probably, however, the fully adult plumage is not assumed until the next postnuptial molt the following summer or fall. Some say that two years are required to assume the fully adult plumage, but I have been unable to find any young males in spring that still wore the adult female plumage, suffused with salmon-pink or orange-red on the posterior under parts. Probably, however, the most brilliantly colored males are the older birds, as there is much individual variation in the intensity of the scarlet.

I have seen one, apparently adult, male that has a patch of yellow feathers on one side of the breast; and another has the whole pileum "cadmium orange" to "cadmium yellow", the throat "deep chrome", and the under parts "salmon orange", mixed with "deep chrome".

Mrs. Bailey (1902b) mentions a rare melanistic phase of plumage that "is uniform dark brown tinged in male with wine purple on crown and lower parts."

Adults have a complete postnuptial molt in August and September and at least a partial prenuptial molt early in spring.

Food: No very comprehensive study of the food of the vermilion flycatcher seems to have been made. Bendire (1895) says: "Its food consists of insects which are mostly caught on the wing; but I have also seen it alight on the ground to pick up a grasshopper or small beetle, returning to its perch afterwards, beating its prey against it, and devouring it at leisure." We often saw it darting out into the air, after the manner of other flycatchers, in pursuit of insects, as well as picking them up from the ground. Both large and small grasshoppers are captured, as well as small beetles, flies, and other small flying insects. When living near apiaries, it has been known to kill many honeybees; but otherwise its food habits are probably more beneficial than harmful.

Behavior: We found this flycatcher to be rather tame and unconcerned about our presence, flitting nervously from one perch to another, from some low tree or bush to a tall weed stalk and then back again, making frequent sallies after insects, or executing his spectacular nuptial flights. The male is a bold and fearless fighter in defense of the nest and rather aggressive against intruders. Mr. Dawson (1923) witnessed the following rather peculiar behavior: "In watching the antics of a certain Vermilion dandy, I saw him resort twice to a tiny fork on a horizontal branch, remote from any possible proximity of a mate, and indulge in a very peculiar set of motions, bowing and turning, and lying supine with outstretched wings and dangling feet. Careful reflection showed the act to be an outcropping, through suggestion, of what we call a secondary sex character, viz., a demonstration of the nest-building instinct, excited by the presence of an especially attractive site."

Voice: The flight song, given in courtship. is well rendered by William Beebe (1905) as "ching-tink-a-le-tink." Mr. Dawson (1923) writes it "tutty tutty tutty zziingh." Ralph Hoffmann (1927) calls it "a slight call of two or three notes, pitt-a-see, pitt-a-see, jerking his head upward at each utterance." However interpreted, it is a striking song, given in an outburst of ecstasy and with considerable energetic effort; it is given by the male alone.

Both sexes have a short call note that sounds like pisk. Mrs. Wheelock (1904) says that the call "is a characteristic loud and constantly repeated 'peet, peet', or 'peet-ter-weet'."

Field marks: The male is unmistakable with his bright scarlet crown and breast, in marked contrast with his brown back. The demure female is brown above, with indistinct whitish wing bars, a white breast streaked with dusky and with a wash of salmon or yellow on the lower belly. Both have the mannerisms of flycatchers. Enemie&: Mrs. Wheelock (1904) witnessed a fight between a vermilion flycatcher and an Arkansas kingbird. The flycatcher happened to fly too near to a tree where the kingbird was perched and was immediately attacked by the latter. "The result was a kaleidoscopic mingling of yellow, red, and brown tumbling earthward, the birds fighting as they fell. The Vermilion had been taken by surprise, and was no match for his antagonist, but he fought gallantly. As he landed on his back on the ~ground, with feet and bill still eager to finish, the kingbird rose a few feet above him, poised over him as a hawk over a field mouse lair, hesitated, and for some occult reason flew back to his own perch."

Dr. Beebe (1905) writes: "This beautiful creature must have had some talisman which guarded him from the fate which overhangs brilliantly coloured birds, for he seemed to have no fear of showing his beauty. There was no attempt at skulking or concealment. * * * Although we watched long and carefully, we never saw a Vermilion Flycatcher assailed or threatened by shrike or hawk. Sometimes a Ground Squirrel rushed at one in a rage, but the bark of a Ground Squirrel is much worse than its bite, so this sham threatening meant little and the flycatcher acted as if he knew it."

Dr. Friedmann (1929) lists this flycatcher as "an uncommon victim of the Dwarf Cowbird." Dr. J. C. Merrill (1878) reported one such case, and Major Bendire (1895) reported two.

Fall: Mr. Swarth (1904) says: "During August, families of young with the parents in attendance, were frequently seen, and at this time I found them more shy and difficult to approach than at any other. The males are, in my experience, singularly tame and unsuspicious for such bright, gaudy plumaged birds." During September the fall migration begins, southward and westward, and by the first of October very few are left in their summer homes in Arizona and New Mexico.

Winter: A few individuals remain all winter in southern Arizona, and a few are scattered westward into southern California, even to the coastal counties as far north as Santa Barbara. Strangely enough, the species is not known as summer resident in California, except in the extreme southwestern corner in the vicinity of the Colorado Valley. James B. Dixon tells me that he has seen the vermilion flycatcher in San Diego County only in winter.

DISTRIBUTION
Range: Southwestern United States; Central and South America; accidental in Louisiana and Florida; not regularly migratory. The range of the vermilion flycatcher extends north to southern California (Cushenbury Ranch); southern Nevada (probably Alamo and Pahrump); southern Utah (pro.bably St. George and the Virgin River Valley); New Mexico (Alma and Mesilla); and southern Texas (San Antonio). East to Texas (San Antonio, Somerset, Corpus Christi, and Brownsville); Tamaulipas (Altamira); Quinlana Roo (Camp Mengel); British Honduras (Belize and Sibun River); eastern Honduras (Segovia River); northeastern Colombia (Valencia); Venezuela (Altagracia and Ciudad Bolivar); Brazil (Caviana Island, Canuman, Forte de Rio Branco, Cuyaba, and Taquara); and Uruguay (San Vincente). South to Uruguay (San Vincente and Paysandil); and central Argentina (Cape San Antonio, Lomas de Zamora, and Victorica). West to western Argentina (Victorica, Mendoza, and Concepcion); southwestern Bolivia (Tolomosa); Peru (Lima and Pacasmayo); Galapagos Archipelago (Charles, Narborough, Bindloe, and Abingdon Islands); Guerrero (Chilpancingo); Sinaloa (Escuinapa); Baja California (Santiago, San Joaquin, and probably San Ramon); and California (Mecca Indian Wells, and Cushenbury Ranch).

The range as outlined is for the entire species, which has been separated into several races. Only one, Pyrocephalus rubinus me~rieamus, occurs in the United States. This subspecies ranges south to southern Mexico.

Casual records: A specimen was collected at Avery Island, La., on December 22, 1934, and another at Baton Rouge, in that State, on February 7, 1938. One was taken on March 25, 1901, near Tallahassee, Fla.

Egg dates: Arizona: 70 records, March 4 to July 4; 36 records, April 30 to May 28, indicating the height of the season. California: 4 records, March 20 to May 9.

Lower California: 36 records, April 7 to June 3; 18 records, May 4 to 18.

Texas: 16 records, March 25 to June 23; 8 records, April 14 to May 3.