When I was a boy at home and playing or working somewhere within earshot of Dad when he wanted me for something, he’d whistle loudly. If I heard it, it meant that it was either suppertime or there was a chore or two to do. A distinctive whistle, I always knew it was Dad.
One summer afternoon while exploring the small woodland behind the farmstead, I heard the familiar whistle and so I returned home. When I arrived and found Dad and asked him what he wanted, he answered, “Want what? I never called you.”
“Huh?” I said.
“I never whistled. You must be hearing things.”
The fact was, however, I wasn’t hearing things at all. And upon returning to the woods to resume my solo adventure, I heard it again. And then again. Over and over. Hence, my introduction to the inconspicuous, though boisterous, eastern wood-pewee.
Eastern wood-pewees have one of the most peculiar common bird names that I can think. Named “pewee” because of its song rather than its diminutive size (about 6 inches long), the eastern wood-pewee is nevertheless diminutive, though not among the smallest of the flycatcher clan for which the species is a member.
Rather, it’s because of their interesting song that pewees’ get their name. Described in the Sibley bird guidebook as, “. . . plaintive, slurred, high, clear whistles . . .” the voice of the pewee sounds like its name, an ascending: “PEEawee!” and typically followed by a descending “peeyoo.” Other musical songs and calls are enthusiastically delivered, too, including short phrased songs, call-notes, and chips. Yet it’s the namesake “PEEawee” song that’s the most recognizable of all.
There are 37 species of flycatchers in North America represented by 10 genera in the family, “Tyrannidae.” Eleven flycatcher species inhabit all or parts of Minnesota for their summertime residences, of which the eastern wood-pewee is included. Other species of flycatchers found in the state are the eastern kingbird, eastern phoebe, great crested flycatcher, and least flycatcher.
As one would expect of a flycatcher, the diet of the eastern wood-pewee consists primarily of insects, especially flying insects. It’s no wonder so many flycatcher species migrate to Minnesota each spring, as insects are never in short supply.
Interesting about flycatchers, pewees included, is the manner in which they capture flying insects. Standard practice for eastern wood-pewees and other flycatchers is to patiently perch on a favorite limb where flight-paths are unimpeded and quickly fly from the perch to capture a flying insect in its beak. In observing the behavior, and if close enough, one can often hear the loud “snap” sound of their beaks snapping closed when capturing their prey.
The hunting/flying technique, called a sally, is well known of flycatchers -- the quick flight from a perch and back again to the same perch. According to a research study quoted on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All About Birds” website, “. . . (eastern wood-pewees) make an average of 36 sallies per hour in the nonbreeding season and almost twice as many -- 68 sallies per hour -- when feeding its young.”
Moreover, pewees, as do other flycatchers, are also known to, “. . . glean insects from foliage or the ground, sometimes taking advantage of locally abundant prey during insect emergences.” But the diet of an eastern wood-pewee isn’t exclusively insects. Other items on the pewee menu include small berries and seeds from a variety of plants such as blueberry, wild strawberry, raspberry, dogwood, and even poison ivy.
A territorial and fearless defender of its nesting area, male eastern wood-pewees will readily drive off other males and species of other birds during the breeding and nesting season. Nesting in trees as high up as 60 to 70 feet, females lay two to four eggs inside of woven grass nests that are difficult for predators to see. And from egg laying to incubation to fledging takes roughly a month or a little longer.
The eastern wood-pewee, a flycatcher with a big voice and a funny name, is another woodland songbird worth getting to know as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.