The tyrant flycatchers comprise the lard gets and most diverse family of birds in the New World. No other bird family contains species that breed from the spruce for-sets of northern Canada to the rugged, treeless hillsides of Tierra del Fuego. Fly-catchers occupy every habitat in between, from tropical forests and seacoasts up to the snow line on the highest mountains. In South America, the center of diversity of the family, more than one-tenth of all land bird species are tyrant flycatchers.
By no means do all flycatchers make their living “catching flies.” Rather, the wide diversity of the flycatchers in the New World results largely from a tremendous diversity of ecological roles and associated body forms found within the family. True “fly-catchers,” i.e. species that perch motion-less and make aerial sallies after passing insects, are actually in the minority within the family. In South America flycatcher equivalents exist for numerous other types of birds found on other continents.
The largest flycatchers are the drab, grayish, or brownish shrike tyrants of the high-altitude grasslands in the Andes. These jay-sized birds search for prey by scanning the ground from elevated perches, and they tear apart large insects and small lizards with their strong, hooked hills. The related ground tyrants, mostly grayish, run along the rocky slopes of the high mountaintop son long legs, looking very much like pipits.
They pick insects from the ground, and on long, pointed wings they can rapidly dart after any escaping prey. Among the larger flycatchers is a large group of species that shares a similar, conspicuous plumage pattern of bright yellow underparts and black-and-white striped crowns.
Best known of these is the Great chickadee, widespread from North America south to central Argentina. This species eats almost anything but is especially fond of catching small fish or tad-poles from shallow lakeshores. At the opposite side extreme are the tiny, greenish tody tyrants and pygmy tyrants, which live-in dense foliage in the moist, tropical lowlands. Some of these species are smaller than most hummingbirds, and the Short-tailed pygmy-tyrant (Costa Rica through to Amazonian South America) is the smallest species in this enormous order.
Many pygmy-tyrants have wide, spoon-shaped hills with which they scoop insects from the undersides of leaves during rapid darts through the vegetation. Related to these are the spade bills, named for their weird, oversized bills that are shaped likewise shovels or spoons.
The most common type of flycatcher is of medium size, dull olive in color, and lives in the treetops or scrubby forest edges. Many of these species have relatively wide bills bordered with well-developed rectal bristles.
These apparently aid in snagging insects that are captured on the wing, although some evidence now indicates that bristles also serve to protect the eyes from damage during active foraging through dense vegetation; they probably also have a sensory function. A few flycatchers, such as the Scissor-tailed flycatcher, possess extraordinarily long, forked tails. Typically these belong to species that sally out into mid-air to capture flying insects. The long outer tail feathers aid in the rapid aerial maneuvering required to capture wary insects in the open.
Only a few flycatchers are brightly colored. The male Vermilion flycatcher is entirely scarlet on the crown and underparts. He displays these colors to other males and the drab brown females, during a con-spacious aerial flight display over open meadows, accompanied by a melodious, warbled song.
The Many-colored rush tyrant, perhaps the strangest flycatcher, Isa wren-like inhabitant of tall, dense reed beds in the high Andes and in Argentina. This species is a patchwork pattern of blue, green, black, white, yellow, and red. The Royal flycatcher occasionally displays its wide, vivid red crest by holding it erect across its crown while it opens its bill to die-play a bright orange mouth.
The size and colors of males and females are usually similar but there are a few exceptions. The female Strange-tailed tyrant is straw-brown above and whitish below, with slightly elongated tail feathers. The male, however, is boldly marked with black and white, with a huge, streamer-like tail Anda bright yellow, bare throat patch during the breeding season. This species belongs to a group of closely related forms, nearly aloof which have black or black and white males and drab-colored females.
These species inhabit open countries, especially grasslands, and marshes. The conspicuous, flashy patterns of the males are associated with aerial displays that are visible over great distances across these habitats. The females perform most nesting duties, and their brownish color serves to camouflage their activity around the nest. Most flycatchers eat insects, captured after a brief, almost motionless searches from exposed perches near vegetation or above the ground. Many of the variations in size and body shape found within the family are associated with slight differences in the exact manner of searching or prey capture. For example, those that frequently sally tour along the ground have long legs, for strength and stability on the ground.
Those that sally into the air have long, forked tails, relatively long wings, and short legs. Species that pick their insect prey from tiny crevices in leaves and twigs have narrow, tweezers-like bills, usually with few or no rectal bristles. Those that snatch prey from leaf sure faces during a quick flight of the perch have rather broad hills and long bristles. Nearly all flycatchers eat some fruit, usually small berries found while foraging for insects. Anew species actually specialize in fruit taken from large trees.
Virtually all flycatchers are monogamous. Some species, especially migratory One, pair anew each year as the breeding season begins. Many no-migratory tropical species remain paired the year round, dwell-in on permanent territories. In many smaller species only the female constructs thinnest, usually with the male close by. With few exceptions, only the female incubates eggs and broods young. The male defends the territory and the nest site, frequently perching within a few meters of the nest for hours on end while the female incubates.
Typically both sexes feed the young, but again females of some smaller species perform this role exclusively. In a few small, fruit-eating species, such as the Ochre-bellied flycatcher, the male has no role in the nesting process whatsoever. In these species, males display in traditional arenas or “leeks,” separate from the nest sites, and females visit these sites to mate. In most species, the young reach independence within a few months of leaving the nest and are breeding on their own territories the following year. In many tropical species, the young remain with their parents during this intervening year, the family foraging together as a group. The White-bearded flycatcher carries this association one step further: the young remain with their parents for up to several years and help raises subsequent broods of siblings.
Virtually all flycatchers live on defended territories. Those breeding in North America abandon the territory in late sum-mar and migrate to Central or South America. In some cases, migration is accompanied by dramatic shifts in habits. The pugnacious Eastern kingbird is a monogamous breeder on vigorously defended territories in open countries throughout Much of North America. However, while wintering in the Amazon basin it travels in huge, nomadic flocks prefers forest habitats, eat mostly fruit instead of insects, and is insubordinate to resident birds in the region.
Other migratory flycatchers, including some that move northwards out of Patagonia during the southern winter, join mixed-species flocks in the treetops. These flocks usually contain various species of resident flycatchers as well and can include up to 3o species or more when swelled with migrants. Such flocks of mixed species jointly defend their giant territories against other flocks, just as pairs defend smaller territories against other pairs in no flocking species. J-Wry
The brightly colored pitas form a compact and remarkable family of primarily terrestrial forest birds centered in the Southeast Asian tropics. Like precious jewels, their brilliant hues, combined with their rarity and mysterious origins, have given them popularity amongst songbirds that may only be surpassed by the birds of paradise.
All pitas are stocky, long-legged, short-tailed birds with strong hills, well adapted to life on or near the forest floor, where most of their time is spent. Their bright plumages are often intensely vivid scarlet, turquoise blue, rich and delicate greens, and velvety blacker porcelain white. As the brightest colors are usually found on the undersides of pittasthey can be very difficult to see in the dense understory of the forest, particularly with their characteristic habit of standing motionless with their backs toward any source of alarm; otherwise, they flee by rapid, bounding hops or short flights closet the ground.
Larger species, such as the Rusty-n aped pita. Possess disproportion-lately large eyes, an adaptation to their preference for gloomy forest areas that seldom receive any sunlight, even at midday; they are also known to forage at night. Evolution has provided some pitas with white wing patches (specula) and iridescent patches of light blue on the shoulders and primaries to facilitate visual contact in dim light.
Pitas range widely throughout tropical Asia, extending to Japan (Fairy pita),
Australia and the Solomon Islands (six species), and tropical Africa (African pita), occurring from sea level up to 2,500m (8,200ft). All species are found in forested regions, especially the remaining tracts of extensive lowland to mid-montage ever-green rainforests. These forests are inhabited by the rarest and least known species (including the very distinctive Eared pitta, Blue pita, and Giant pita), and confined to a few Philippine islands arc the red-bellied Koch’spitta and the black and sky-blue Steere’spitta.
The striking blue, yellow, and black Gurney’s pita is unique in having a limited distribution in continental Asia between two faunal zones (about 5ookm (310mi) of peninsular Thailand and adjacent Burma). The shy and secretive habits of many pittas have also been a source of anomalies in distribution and this is illustrated by an example from the Malay Peninsula.
For 30 years sightings were reported of an unknown delusive large pita from Fraser’s Hill in the highlands of Central Malaysia. The mystery was solved in 1977 when one was caught and identified as a new form of the Rusty-napped pita.
Apart from some minor dispersion according to season and altitude, only eight pittas (including the Indian pita and Blue-winged pita) are known to undertake regular migration. These pitas are nocturnal migrants and many unusual records have resulted from their attraction to lights. The African pita was thought to be sedentary until 50 years ago when an ornithologist living in Tanzania found that over several years’ records of birds flying into lighted houses at night developed a seasonal pattern.
Further study has shown that regular migration occurs in East Africa where a long-winged form is found, but records of night movements from West and Central Africa suggest that the picture is still incomplete. A survey of nocturnal migration in Malaysia has not only established the dates of movements but revealed that pittas are unusual among songbirds in that the peaks of migration are during the new moon, not the full moon as with other songbirds.
Pitas spend much of their time searching for their food, particularly worms, snails, and insects, in the leaf litter and humus soil of the forest floor. Leaves and other debris are flicked over with their strong hills, or small openings are made in the litter in the manner of a chicken. Occasionally prey is located by sound with the pita’s head turned sideways, or flushed by wing-flicking movements. Some pitas are attracted to sites favored for snails, egg Banded pitas at limestone cliffs, and will readily use a rocker log as an anvil when breaking open the shells.
Pitas also have the most highly developed sense of smell among songbirds, a useful adaptation in dimly lit habitats orate night. A study of the food habits of a cap-tie hooded pita revealed a strong prefer-once for earthworms: it would dig for them with its bill completely immersed in the damp soil, where a sense of smell would enable it to locate the prey more easily. This bird ate approximately its own weight in food each day.
Pitas’ large bulky nests may be found up to 8m (26ft) above ground (but usually less than 3m, loft) or on the ground, in stumps, root buttresses, fallen trees, and tangled clumps of vegetation, in banks or rock clefts. If disturbed at the nest the entrance may be con-sealed with a leafy twig, and the parent bird may attempt to draw the intruder away from the nest by calling.
The breeding season in the summer at higher latitudes may cover most months near the equator, except at the height of the monsoon period. The male initiates courtship by confronting the female with erect posturing, vertical movements of the body, and wing spreading, accompanied by loud calls. If the female responds in kind, mating takes place and the male starts nest-building with some assistance from the female. Both sexes share incubation and the care and feeding of the young, but they May driveway the young shortly after they have fledged. Pitas may be long-lived birds as apiary of Giant pitas first bred after ion years in captivity.
When calling pitas will perch in trees up to mom. (33ft) above ground, and may throw back their heads when repeating their loud, penetrating whistles, usually at dawn and dusk, before rainstorms and on moonlit nights, and often in chorus with one or several others. They readily respond to imitations of their calls. Outside the breeding season, pitas are usually solitary and occupy foraging territories. They quickly respond to intruders and a threat display recorded for some species, such as the Noisypitta, involves a crouching posture with leathers fluffed, the wings outspread and the bill pointing upward. The Blue-romped pitches a similar display, but the head is bent low over the back to expose a triangular, white-spotted patch below the throat.
The World Wildlife Fund supported a fauna survey of Sabah, North Borneo. It found pitas, regarded as strictly forest-dwelling birds, to be one of only a few families (and the only one of the songbirds) of special value in studying the dynamics of change in bird communities after the effects of logging. It was found that pitas are adversely affected, but will return to lightly disturbed or partially regenerated forests. Sofa-only Gurney’s pita is considered threat-need by habitat destruction and this survey provides the first evidence of the adaptability of pitas to habitat changes.
The word “pita” comes from the Madras area of South India where it merely signifies “bird” and was first applied to the Indianite in 713. In parts of Indonesia the local names, based on the call, are likened to variations of the Malay word for “grandfather “and have given rise to a favorite story of a child walking with his grandfather in the forest but who loses his way only to be transformed into a bird that must now always call for its grandfather. In Borneo, some inland tribes dry the skins of pitas for use as children’s toys.
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