Photo Credit: 
Randy Mitchell | For The Chronicle

The scissor-tailed flycatcher is the State Bird of Oklahoma, and why not, Oklahoma is the only state where the bird can be found in every corner during the breeding season.

It is also quite acrobatic while hunting and is this week’s featured creature for Randy’s Natural World.

The scissor-tailed flycatcher is common in Oklahoma during the spring and summer months, and the Southern Oklahoma/North Texas area is the center of the nesting range for the bird.

While in flight, the scissor-tailed flycatcher opens and closes its long, striking tail like a pair of scissors — hence the name.

The male has a tail which can grow to nine inches in length, while the female’s is slightly shorter.

Scissor-tailed flycatchers are very similar in many ways to kingbirds, as they are closely related to them. Scissor-tailed flycatchers are a member of the kingbird genus "tyrannus."

In spring, the male puts on quite a spectacular show to impress a female during courtship. He will ascend to a dizzying height, then dive down while somersaulting through the air, showing off his impressive tail.

If the female likes him, the two will pair up and remain monogamous throughout the breeding season.

 

Appearance

Adult birds are pale gray for the most part. However, the top half of the head and nape of the neck are a light gray, while the breast and front of the neck are mostly white. The wings have black feathers with white edges, giving the wings a dark gray or sooty black appearance. Tailfeathers are a mixture of black and white. The bird has salmon-pink flanks and underbelly.

 

Range and nesting

As well as the entirety of Oklahoma, the nesting range for “scissortails,” as they are sometimes called, covers nearly all of Texas, a portion of southeastern New Mexico, all except for the northwest corner of Kansas, all of the southwestern third of Missouri, the western halves of Arkansas and Louisiana and some of northern Mexico, just south of Texas.

Scissor-tailed flycatchers are seen in Oklahoma from early April to late October, though individuals are sometimes seen as early as the last week of March and some birds linger until mid-November, according to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.

I was driving through Stuart a few years ago and saw one on Nov. 21. That is the latest in the year that I've ever seen one in the state.

Once males arrive from their wintering grounds in southern Mexico and Central America, they establish and defend territories. Females arrive later, and the courtship begins.

Once pair bonding is complete, nesting follows. A nest is constructed usually in a shrub or tree, between seven and 30 feet above the ground. The female builds the nest by herself and uses a variety of natural and man-made materials, including paper, string and even cigarette butts.

The female lays from three to six eggs. Like many birds, she lays one egg a day, and incubation begins once all eggs are laid. Incubation lasts from two to three weeks. Both the male and female feed the nestlings, which have voracious appetites. The young grow at a rapid pace and are ready to leave the nest after about two weeks.

While nesting, scissortails will aggressively attack and chase off larger birds that get near the nest.

Couples raise one or two broods each year.

 

Habitat

Scissor-tailed flycatchers prefer open country, such as prairies dotted with shrubs and trees. They also populate farmland, like pastures, and can sometimes be found in residential areas.

They are often welcomed by farmers and gardeners, as they help eliminate pest insects.

 

Food

As I stated previously, scissortails are quite acrobatic while hunting. They will grab up insects in the air, as well as on vegetation and the ground.

When snatching insects in mid-flight, the forked tail comes in very handy.

Scissor-tailed flycatchers eat grasshoppers, robber flies, dragonflies, crickets, beetles, wasps, bees, true bugs, flies, caterpillars, moths and others. They will also eat some spiders.

 

Odds and ends

• The scissor-tailed flycatcher is also known as the Texas bird-of-paradise and the swallow-tailed flycatcher.

• A scissor-tailed flycatcher was displayed in flight on the reverse side of the Oklahoma Commemorative Quarter, which was issued by the U.S. Mint in 2008.

• In late summer, the birds will form large, noisy flocks of up to 1,000 birds prior to migration to their winter range.

• Scissor-tailed flycatchers are protected by federal law.

• Just one last thing, there has been a very rare bird visiting the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge for about the past week. The bird, a zone-tailed hawk, is very far from its normal range of Mexico, southwest Texas and Arizona, and this is the first recorded sighting in Oklahoma. It may still be there, as it was last recorded June 9 just before I submitted this column, but I can't be certain. It was being seen around the entrance to Elk Mountain Trail.

Another rare bird was spotted there as well, a common black hawk. It was only seen for one day, around June 3.

So, keep your eyes to the skies and you may see one of these rare birds.

 

Randy Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. He has been an avid birdwatcher, nature enthusiast and photographer for more than 40 years. Reach him at rnw@usa.com.

 

RANDY’S NATURAL WORLD