Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

"Sky Dancer"

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. Photo by William Learman/Alamy Stock Photo.

At a Glance

  • Scientific Name: Tyrannus forficatus
  • Population: 9.1 million
  • Trend:  Decreasing
  • Habitat: Breeds in grasslands and other open and semi-open habitats; winters in similar habitats in tropical lowlands.

About

The elegant Scissor-tailed Flycatcher is an unforgettable sight, with a forked black-and-white tail that can reach twice the length of its body. While both sexes have long tails, the male's is noticeably longer. This bird's silvery gray-and-white plumage is accented by washes of salmon pink along its sides and under its wings. Vivid scarlet patches flash in its "wing pits," or axillaries, as it flies. It also has a scarlet crown patch, generally hidden unless the bird erects it when threatened or during territorial interactions with other birds.

A member of the same family as the Eastern Kingbird and Great Crested Flycatcher, this bird is generally easy to spot, as it favors out-in-the-open perches such as roadside wires and fence lines.  

Flowing Feathers

The Scissor-tailed Flycatcher's unusually long tail gives it extra maneuverability, allowing tight turns and abrupt changes of direction as the bird pursues prey. During breeding season, males put their extra-long plumes to different use: A male will fly to heights of up to 100 feet, then descend in a series of short, V-shaped zigzags while opening and closing his long “scissor” tail feathers and calling loudly.  

No doubt thanks to its telltale tail feathers, this stand-out species is the state bird of Oklahoma, and is pictured on that state's official 25-cent coin. Further south, it is known as the Texas bird-of-paradise or swallow-tailed flycatcher, and in Mexico and Central America people call it “tijereta” and “tijerillo,” names referring to scissors. 

Songs and Sounds

The Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, like its near relatives, lacks a true song, but it still makes its presence known with sharp, high-pitched calls and squeaky chattering.

Listen here:

Andrew Spencer, XC140971. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/140971.

Breeding and Feeding

Aerial Show-offs

Soon after male Scissor-tailed Flycatchers return to their breeding grounds, they begin to perform their "sky dance" courtship ritual (described above). This aerial display, which can include fancy backwards somersaults, seems guaranteed to impress any watching females. 

Once a female Scissor-tailed Flycatcher takes up residence in a male's territory, she begins to build her nest, usually at eye level on a horizontal tree limb or in a tree fork; she may also utilize structures such as utility poles or bridge girders. 

She builds a cup-shaped nest with an outer layer of twigs, grass stems, and debris such as string, cloth, paper, or even cigarette filters. The nest is lined with softer materials, then the female lays four to six eggs. Once her clutch is complete, the female fiercely defends the area around her nest. Both sexes are extremely territorial during the breeding season and will attack intruders many times their size, including larger birds such as Red-tailed and Swainson's Hawks. A nesting pair of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers may produce several broods in a season.

As aerially inclined as many other flycatchers, the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher hunts on the wing, hawking grasshoppers and beetles in mid-air. This species is valued throughout its range because much of its diet consists of insects, including those that can harm agricultural crops. 

In addition to snatching meals in mid-air, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers may also hover to glean prey from vegetation, or drop abruptly to the ground to pounce on insects. In winter, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers also join Western Kingbirds and other birds to pluck small fruits from trees including the Gumbo Limbo or Jiñocuabo (Bursera simaruba). 

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and young. Photo by Ken Slade.

Region and Range

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher range. Map by ABC.

Scissor-tailed Flycatchers breed from southern Nebraska south to Texas and just over the border into far northeastern Mexico, then east to central Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri. They prefer open areas with scattered trees or shrubs, but can also be found in farm fields and near towns. In late summer, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers gather in large flocks of up to 1,000 birds before beginning to migrate to their winter range. During their daytime migration and while wintering, the birds continue to travel and roost in large flocks.

The Scissor-tailed Flycatcher winters in open areas including savannas, pastures, scrublands, and forest edges, and near towns. This bird's winter range runs from southern Mexico through drier Pacific-slope regions of Central America. Each winter, small numbers occur in southern Florida as well.

This species tends to wander far from its normal haunts, and has been recorded all along the East Coast, in southern Canada, and on some Caribbean islands.

Conservation

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher populations are more or less stable, although some areas show local declines. Since it nests in the open, the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher is vulnerable to bad weather such as tornados. Breeding success may also be impacted by brush removal, which destroys potential nest sites, and pesticide use. 

This flashy flycatcher shares habitat with other grassland species in more urgent need of conservation attention, including the Dickcissel, Northern Bobwhite, Loggerhead Shrike, and Eastern Meadowlark.

Help support ABC's conservation mission!

ABC works with landowners, agencies, and a variety of programs, including Migratory Bird Joint Ventures, to preserve grassland habitats. The Oaks and Prairies Joint Venture in particular is helping to restore grasslands in Texas and Oklahoma, important breeding areas for the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. Our BirdScapes approach, which aims to save breeding, wintering, and stopover habitat for migratory birds, provides another boost for this species and other grassland birds.

Get Involved

Policies enacted by the U.S. Congress and federal agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have a huge impact on migratory birds. You can help shape these rules for the better by telling lawmakers to prioritize birds, bird habitat, and bird-friendly measures. To get started, visit ABC's Action Center.

Living a bird-friendly life can have an immediate impact on migratory birds in the United States. Doing so can be as easy as adding native plants to your garden, avoiding pesticides, and keeping cats indoors. To learn more, visit our Bird-Friendly Life page.

American Bird Conservancy and our Migratory Bird Joint Venture partners have improved conservation management on more than 8.5 million acres of U.S. bird habitat — an area larger than the state of Maryland — over the last ten years. That's not all: With the help of international partners, we've established a network of more than 100 areas of priority bird habitat across the Americas, helping to ensure that birds' needs are met during all stages of their lifecycles. These are monumental undertakings, requiring the support of many, and you can help by making a gift today.

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  • Trend:  Decreasing
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