A sparrow-sized (6-6 ½ inches) flycatcher, the Eastern Wood-Pewee is most easily identified by its size, gray-green body, and white wing bars. Other field marks include a light breast, black legs, and shallowly-notched tail. Male and female Eastern Wood-Pewees are similar to one another in all seasons. The Eastern Wood-Pewee breeds across much of the eastern United States and southern Canada. In summer this species may be found west to the Great Plains and south to northern Florida. All Eastern Wood-Pewees migrate south in winter, when they may be found in northern South America. Eastern Wood-Pewees breed in a variety of forest habitats, including forests with deciduous trees, evergreen trees, or a mix of both. This species may be found in more open habitats during migration, and spends the winter along the edges of humid tropical forests. Like most flycatchers, the Eastern Wood-Pewee primarily eats insects, which it catches while in flight. In eastern forests in summer, the Eastern Wood-Pewee may be most easily observed flying out from high perches to capture insect prey. This species may also be observed on a high perch singing its characteristic ‘pee-a-wee’ song. Eastern Wood-Pewees are primarily active during the day.
occurs (regularly, as a native taxon) in multiple nations
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Type of Residency: Breeding
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Type of Residency: Breeding
Global Range: (>2,500,000 square km (greater than 1,000,000 square miles)) BREEDING: southeastern Saskatchewan east across southern Canada to Nova Scotia; south to Texas, Gulf Coast, and central Florida; west to central North Dakota, central South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, western Oklahoma, and east Texas and Edwards Plateau (McCarty 1996). NON-BREEDING: Colombia and Venezuela south to southern Peru, northern Bolivia, and western Brazil, rarely north to Costa Rica (Hilty and Brown 1986, McCarty 1996).
Length: 16 cm
Weight: 14 grams
Catalog Number: USNM 111270
Collection: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Vertebrate Zoology, Division of Birds
Sex/Stage: Male; Adult
Preparation: Skin: Whole
Collector(s): C. Townsend
Year Collected: 1887
Locality: Swan Island, = Isla Grande, Isla Grande, Swan Islands, North America
- Type: Ridgway. August 6, 1888. Proc. U.S. Nat. Mus. 10: 576.
Habitat and Ecology
Comments: BREEDING: Inhabits a wide variety of wooded upland and lowland habitats including deciduous, coniferous, or mixed forests (Bond 1957, McCarty 1996). Occurs most frequently in forests with some degree of openness, whether it be the result of forest structure, natural disturbance, or human alteration (Palmer-Ball 1996). Intermediate-aged forests with a relatively sparse midstory are preferred (Crawford et al. 1981, Johnston and Odum 1956). Territories in such forests can be equally abundant under both an open or closed canopy (Johnston 1971). However, under some circumstances may be absent from closed-canopied forests (Hespenheide 1971). Tends to inhabit edges of younger forests having a relatively dense midstory (Palmer-Ball 1996, Strelke and Dickson 1980). Also occurs in anthropogenic habitats providing an open forested aspect such as parks and suburban neighborhoods (Palmer-Ball 1996). Nest is constructed atop a horizontal branch, 1.2-21.4 meters above the ground, in a wide variety of deciduous and coniferous trees (McCarty 1996, Terres 1991). NON-BREEDING: During migration through Central America, inhabits edges, clearings, and canopy of tall forest to second-growth scrub forest (Blake and Loiselle 1992, Greenberg 1992, Stiles and Skutch 1989). On wintering grounds inhabits secondary forest as well as edges or canopy gaps of primary forest (Fitzpatrick 1980, Pearson 1980, Stotz et al. 1992).
Non-Migrant: No. All populations of this species make significant seasonal migrations.
Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make local extended movements (generally less than 200 km) at particular times of the year (e.g., to breeding or wintering grounds, to hibernation sites).
Locally Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species make annual migrations of over 200 km.
Although there are reports of spring migrants arriving in the United States as early as mid-March (Oberholser 1974, Stevenson and Anderson 1994), most first arrivals occur in April (J. McCarty, pers. comm.). By mid-May, species occurs throughout the breeding range. Fall migration typically begins in mid- to late August, peaks in mid-September, and continues into mid-October. Migrants move through Gulf Coastal Mexico and Central America to wintering grounds in South America. Some individuals cross the Caribbean (McCarty 1996). Migrates through Costa Rica from mid-August to mid-November and from early March to mid-May (Stiles and Skutch 1989). Winters in South America from September through late April (McCarty 1996).
Comments: Feeds principally on flying insects captured during sallies from a perch in the canopy or subcanopy; occasionally gleans insects from foliage or the ground (McCarty 1996). The diet of adults in Virginia and West Virginia consisted of insects (Coleoptera, Diptera, Lepidoptera [adults, larvae, and pupae], Hymenoptera, Homoptera, Hemiptera, Orthoptera, and spiders (Araneae; Johnston 1971, Sample et al 1993). Examination of 369 stomachs collected from throughout the range contained 99% invertebrates (principally insects) and 1% berries and seeds of dogwood (CORNUS sp.), blueberry (VACCINIUM sp.), blackberry (RUBUS sp.), Poison Ivy (RHUS TOXICODENDRON), and panic grass (PANICUM sp.; Beal 1912 cited in McCarty 1995). Density along prairie streams in Kansas was significantly correlated with emergence of aquatic insects. Chironomids (Diptera) and mayflies (Ephemeroptera) were important prey items (Gray 1993).
Estimates of population density vary widely. Population density in Arkansas varies from 2-11 individuals/40.5 hectares [0.05-0.27 birds/ha] in uplands forests and from 2-13 individuals/40.5 hectares [0.04-0.32/ha] in bottomland forests, and territorial males are most abundant (25/40.5 hectares or 0.62/ha) in Ozark Mountain cedar glades (James and Neal 1986). Breeding pair density in Connecticut ranges from 0.4-1.7/10 hectares (0.04-0.17/ha; Askins and Philbrick 1987). In Illinois, breeding population density ranges from 1-67 birds/40.5 hectares (0.02-1.65/ha; Graber et al. 1974). In open, mixed pine-hardwood forest in Arkansas, density ranges from 5.2-14.9 birds/ha (Wilson et al. 1995). In Red Oak (QUERCUS RUBRA) forest in the Smoky Mountains, breeding pair density is 1.2/10 hectares (0.12/ha; Wilcove 1988). In three Illinois forest fragments, densities ranged from 0.32-0.86 pairs/ha during a 5-year period (Robinson 1992). In two studies conducted in Illinois, territory size averaged 0.76, 1.09, and 1.17 hectares (range 0.4-1.25) depending upon year of study. Territories were smaller in years of higher populations and larger with lower population densities (Graber et al. 1974). Exhibits breeding site fidelity. For example, 22.2% of individuals banded one year were recaptured the following year on the same net line in the same forest fragment in Illinois (Robinson 1992). Maximum life span is > 7 years (McCarty 1996).
Life History and Behavior
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
Nesting dates (eggs or young) across the range vary from 6 May-1 September, with earliest nests occurring in the southern states and latest in the northern states and Canada. Later nests may represent renests or multiple broods, but data are lacking. Average clutch size is 3 eggs (range 2-4). Eggs are laid on consecutive days, but beginning of incubation in relation to oviposition is unknown. Incubation, by female only, requires 12-14 days. Young, who are fed by both parents, fledge in 16-18 days. Although multiple clutches/broods have not been documented, they are suspected to occur (McCarty 1996). Nest success (defined as a nest that fledged at least one young) was 100% in four nests studied in managed forests in Minnesota (Hanski et al. 1996) and 100% for seven nests examined in oak-hickory forest in Maryland (Chasko and Gates 1982). Thought to first breed at one year of age (J. McCarty, pers. comm.).
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Contopus virens
Below is the sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen.
Other sequences that do not yet meet barcode criteria may also be available.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Contopus virens
Public Records: 1
Specimens with Barcodes: 3
Species With Barcodes: 1
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: N4B - Apparently Secure
Rounded National Status Rank: N5B - Secure
NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded Global Status Rank: G5 - Secure
Comments: Not detected in areas of experimentally high White-tailed Deer density (>7.9 deer/km2) in Pennsylvania, possibly due to alteration of intermediate canopy (deCalesta 1994). The relationship between ungulate density and pewee density is not clear, however, because in another study pewees were observed significantly more often in stands over-browsed by White-tailed Deer, Elk (CERVUS ELAPHUS), and Mouflon Sheep (OVIS MUSIMON) than in unbrowsed stands (Casey and Hein 1983). Furthermore, deer density (ranging from high [13-23/km2] to low [1-3/km2]) had no significant influence on pewee density in oak woodlands in New England (DeGraaf, et al. 1991). Nests are parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds (MOLOTHRUS ATER) at variable rates. In Canada, 5.1% of 117 nests were parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds (McCarty 1996), whereas in Illinois, 67% of three nests were parasitized (Robinson 1992). Spraying of the insecticide diflubenzuron to control the gypsy moth (LYMANTRIA DISPAR) reduced body fat levels of birds (Whitmore et al. 1993). No information on predation (McCarty 1996). Development for human habitation results in habitat loss or degradation. Density in an urban environment was found to be lower than in a forested environment (Beissinger and Osborne 1982).
Restoration Potential: Probably good as this species inhabits a wide variety of forested habitats.
Preserve Selection and Design Considerations: A forest interior and forest edge species (Blake and Karr 1987, Freemark and Collins 1992, Graber et al. 1974). Selection of forest fragments in fragmented landscapes is generally area independent (Freemark and Collins 1992). Has been observed in forest fragments as small as 0.5 hectares in South Carolina, 1.8 hectares in Illinois, and 2.0 hectares in New Jersey (Blake and Karr 1987, Forman et al. 1976, Galli et al. 1976, Kilgo et al. 1997). In Maryland, found to be significantly more abundant in smaller forest fragments (Lynch and Whigham 1984). In South Carolina, found in isolated hardwood stands surrounded by fields, but not in those surrounded by pine plantations (Kilgo et al. 1997). Will use wooded riparian habitats as narrow as 20 meters wide (Stauffer and Best 1980). Although observed in all riparian habitats studied in Maryland (50-200 meters wide), significantly more likely to inhabit wider riparian corridors (Keller et al. 1993). Forest-dividing corridors (e.g., powerlines, roads) can affect distribution. In deciduous forest in eastern Tennessee, distribution of pewees was random with respect to a powerline corridor (Anderson et al. 1977). In New Jersey, however, pewees exhibited an aversion to wider corridors traversing oak-pine forest (Rich et al. 1994). In oak-hickory forest in Maryland, pewees nested an average of 44.5-50 meters away from the edge of a forest-dividing corridor (Chasko and Gates 1982).
Management Requirements: Management that favors intermediate-aged, closed- or open-canopy forests having little understory and/or relatively small clearings will benefit this species (Crawford et al. 1981, Noon et al. 1980, Thompson and Capen 1988, Yahner 1993, Webb et al. 1977). In mixed pine (PINUS)-hardwood forest in Arkansas, pewees preferred stands opened by hardwood thinning and prescribed fire (Wilson et al. 1995). Habitat can be maintained or improved by selectively removing large trees, or making group selection cuts or scattered, moderately-sized (ca. 10 ha) clearcuts (Crawford et al. 1981). In deciduous forest in Illinois, found to be significantly more abundant in recently selectively logged ravines than in uncut or older cut ravines (Robinson and Robinson 1999).
Management Research Needs: Need additional data on impact of high White-tailed Deer (ODOCOILEUS VIRGINIANUS) density and indirect effects of pesticides that reduce the food supply (J. McCarty, pers. comm.).
Biological Research Needs: Winter ecology, including distributional limits of wintering habitat, as well as threats to wintering birds, needs study. Reproductive biology is poorly known; determining factors that influence reproductive success is especially critical. Studies of diseases and parasites species are also needed (McCarty 1996).
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Stewardship Overview: A forest interior and forest edge species that inhabits forest fragments as small as 0.5 hectares and riparian corridors as narrow as 20 meters during the breeding season. Prefers intermediate-aged, closed- or open-canopy forests having little understory and/or relatively small clearings. Habitat can be maintained or improved by selective logging, group selection cuts, small to moderately-sized (£10 hectares) clearcuts, and prescribed fire. North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) data indicate a significant survey-wide population decline. Declines are most apparent in the eastern and central BBS regions and Canada. Possible threats include habitat loss, habitat alteration by White-tailed Deer (ODOCOILEUS VIRGINIANUS), Brown-headed Cowbird (MOLOTHRUS ATER) nest parasitism, and pesticide use. Need to continue to monitor populations closely and determine reason(s) for apparent decline.
Eastern wood pewee
The eastern wood pewee (Contopus virens) is a small tyrant flycatcher from North America. This bird and the western wood pewee (C. sordidulus) were formerly considered to be a single species. The two species are virtually identical in appearance, and can be distinguished most easily by their calls.
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Adults are grey-olive on the upperparts with light underparts, washed with olive on the breast. They have two wing bars, and the primary remiges are long, giving the wingtip a slim and very pointed appearance. The upper part of the bill is dark, the lower part is yellowish. The songs are basically a mournful whistled pee-a'wee given in a series, which gave this bird its name, and a we-aww with a rising note at the end.
The western wood pewee (C. sordidulus) is essentially indistinguishable visually. But its range is parapatric to the west of C. virens, and its song—a descending tsee-tsee-tsee-peeer—is entirely different.
The eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) is similar, particularly in the worn plumage after breeding. It always lacks clearly defined wingbars, however, and bobs its tail frequently. It has a shorter primary projection. The eastern phoebe is also present on the breeding grounds by March, while eastern wood pewees don't arrive until very late April and early May. The songs (fee-bee, fee-bee) and calls (chip) are quite different.
The least flycatcher (Empidonax minimus) is quite similar to the eastern wood pewee in plumage, but has a bold eye ring and much shorter primary projection, appearing rather blunt-winged. It also has a shorter bill and is smaller overall. The songs (che-bec, che-bec) and calls (a sharp whit) are very different.
Eastern phoebe lacks bolder wing bars and has shorter primary projection
Least flycatcher has bold eye-rings and shorter primary projection
Their breeding habitat is deciduous, mixed woods, or pine plantations in eastern North America. These birds migrate to Central America and in the Andes region of northern South America. They feed on insects and other arthropods. Wood pewees wait on a perch at a middle height in a tree and fly out to catch prey in flight, sometimes hovering to pick it from vegetation.
Eastern wood pewees arrive relatively late on breeding grounds (e.g., 18 May to 5 June in southern Ontario). They are rarely seen on their breeding grounds before the last days of April further south. They migrate south at a more usual time, leaving sometimes in late August but most often in September. Migration times have stayed the same in the last 100 years. They migrate quickly for most of the journey, dispersing and moving at a slower speed when approaching breeding or wintering range. For example, in the Cayman Islands which are offshore the winter quarters, the species is only rarely and briefly encountered, but passes through on its way north as early as mid-late February.
C. virens makes an open cup nest made of grasses, bark, and lichen, attached to a horizontal tree branch with spider webs. Nest sites range in height from 15 to 60 ft (4.6 to 18.3 m), but average around 30 ft (9.1 m). Common nest trees used include oaks (Quercus), pines (Pinus), birches (Betula), and maples (Acer). The female lays almost always three (sometimes two) translucent-white eggs with brown flecking concentrated towards the larger end of the ovate egg. Males are territorial and defend the nesting area aggressively, often fighting with neighbouring conspecifics and even pursue attacks on other species (e.g., least flycatchers, American robins, chipping sparrows, red-eyed vireos, etc.). Males can sometimes be polygynous, mating with two females, simultaneously.
The eggs hatch in 12–14 days and both parents bring food to the altricial nestlings. Nestlings typically fledge 15–17 days after hatching, often ending up on the ground during the first flight out of the nest. The adults will perch on a nearby branch and call out to the nestlings, keeping contact and providing them with food until the young are able to fly to join them.
Its numbers, however, are declining in recent decades, possibly due to the loss of forest habitat in its winter range. It is also possible that the increase of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in its breeding range has led to a change in vegetation and associated invertebrates in the lower levels of the deciduous forests where the eastern wood pewee breeds.
- BirdLife International (2012). "Contopus virens". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013.
- Leger, Daniel W. (2005). "First documentation of combinatorial song syntax in a suboscine passerine species". Condor 107 (4): 765–774. doi:10.1650/7851.1.
- Ohio Ornithological Society (2004): Annotated Ohio state checklist.
- Henninger, W.F. (1906). "A preliminary list of the birds of Seneca County, Ohio". Wilson Bull. 18 (2): 47–60.
- Olson, Storrs L.; James, Helen F. & Meister, Charles A. (1981). "Winter field notes and specimen weights of Cayman Island Birds". Bulletin of the British Ornithologists' Club 101 (3): 339–346.
- Falconer, C.M. (2010): Nest survival and habitat selection of Eastern Wood-Pewees in deciduous forest and pine plantations. M.Sc. Thesis, Trent University
Names and Taxonomy
Comments: Regarded as conspecific with C. sordidulus by some authors (AOU 1983). Constitutes a superspecies with C. sordidulus and C. cinereus (AOU 1998).