Vermilion Flycatcher a colorful winter visitor

By Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

Pyrocephalus rubinus is a very descriptive scientific name for the male Vermilion Flycatcher. The name literally means "red flame head".

This small bird has a bright vermilion head and body. There is a modest crest on the back of the head. The wings, back and tail are blackish-brown. The blackish-brown face mask separates the crown from throat.

The Mexican name for Vermilion Flycatcher is "brasita de fuego" which means "little coal of fire". So, unless one is color blind, the males are pretty hard to miss. These birds are often found around water, especially small ponds.

Vermilion Flycatchers arrive in our region in the fall and leave in the spring. Numbers are never high. These wintering birds are most likely of southwestern USA and Mexican origin. Range extends through Central America into much of South America.

Female Vermilion Flycatchers are LBJs Little Brown Jobs. Wings, backs and tails are brown. The breasts are white with brownish streaking extending down the sides. The bellies and undertails are a tawny orange color adults or yellow color first year birds. Immature males show various degrees of vermillion coloring but this tends to be blotchy and the upper body is brown.

While you might miss female and immature Vermilion Flycatchers, it's very unlikely that you won't notice a mature male. These little birds about 6 inches in length perch in the open on bare limbs, fences, fence posts, and other convenient perches from which they can sally forth to catch insects, mainly in the air, but also on the ground. All birds will conspicuously wag their tails while perched and are genuinely alone.

Vermilion Flycatchers are now considered to be "regular winter visitors" by ornithological authorities in our region. This has not always been the case. Harry Olberholser listed them as "casual or accidental winter visitors" in his 1938 book entitled "The Bird Life of Louisiana".

However, by 1974, Professor George H. Lowery, Jr. noted "the regular winter presence" of Vermilion Flycatchers in "Louisiana Birds".

These birds are most likely to be found close to the Gulf Coast but occasionally are found a greater distance inland. However, birders who would find the birds are concentrated around major cities and there are vast areas that are never surveyed. So, numbers may be far higher inland than otherwise indicated in ornithological records.

Vermilion Flycatchers do not breed in our region so one has to go to the southwestern USA to watch breeding behavior or go to Mexico, Central America or South America. Males fluff their feathers and/or fly up about 50 feet and then sing and flutter downward to attract a mate. The males will often catch a butterfly and present it to a potential mate.

The male's song is a soft tinkling, repeated pit-a-see, pit-a-see, pit-a-see. During winter visits to the Gulf South, most males will respond readily to people playing this song. It is high pitched and hard for folks with hearing problems to hear.