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May 2011 cover image Birding's Hidden Treasures

Wild Thing: Tapestry of Trash

Scissor-tailed flycatchers weave just about anything into their nests.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Carpet fuzz, cigarette filters, twine, paper, even cow manure — whatever’s handy, a scissor-tailed flycatcher may pluck some and weave it into her twiggy nest.

In some people’s minds, “trashy” might also describe her preferred tree for nesting, but a mother scissortail has her reasons, says Tim Fulbright, a research scientist with Texas A&M University–Kingsville. In the 1990s, he studied nest sites at the Welder Wildlife Refuge near Sinton.

“Many Texans dislike mesquite, but not scissor-tailed flycatchers,” he says. “On the refuge, they placed 91 percent of their nests in mesquite, even though a variety of other shrubs were available.” Why? “Selecting taller shrubs like mesquites may help avoid nest predation,” Fulbright theorizes.

Scissor-tailed flycatchers — sometimes called the Texas bird of paradise — are named for their deeply forked tails. In early spring, males (who have longer tails) arrive first from their wintering grounds, followed by females. To attract a mate, acrobatic males dive from dizzying heights, twisting and somersaulting along the way.

Both parents feed nestlings and fiercely stave off hawks, ravens and other large birds that happen by. At 2 weeks old, young scissortails leave the nest. Observer’s tip: Only adults have pinkish underwings and sides.

On the wing, scissor-tailed flycatchers forage for insects, such as moths, grasshoppers, crickets and beetles. They’re often seen perching on utility lines, fences or other lofty perches near open fields, where they can more easily launch into the air to sally forth or spot meals down below.

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