Bird Watcher's General Store

Wood Pewees - 06/25/04


Dear Bird Folks:

Years ago, when I was growing up in New York state, I remember hearing wood-pewees calling in the woods near my house. I had completely forgotten about that little bird until just the other day. Since it was my birthday, I took the day off to go for a walk in the woods, where I heard the long forgotten call of the wood-pewee. It immediately brought back a flood of pleasant memories. Why has it been so long since I have heard that distinct call? Is the pewee endangered? Is it making a come back? Where has it been?

-Laurence, Wellfleet

Get Out Laurence,

When I say "get out", I don't mean the same kind of get out, as in "Are you kidding me? Get out of town". I simply mean you have to get out, as in get outside more often. The pewees have always been there and still are. They are not endangered. It is the time you spend outside, enjoying nature, that is endangered. One walk in the woods each year isn't nearly enough.

I have to give you credit for even knowing what a wood-pewee is. I would bet ninety-eight percent of the people reading this still don't even know what you and I are talking about. That's no big surprise, few people can understand what the heck I'm talking about. Obviously, based on what we have been writing here for the past four years, a wood-pewee is a bird. Although I admit the name makes it sound more like some kind of little forest creature: a creature that lives in a mushroom, with a legend that claims if you catch one you will be granted a wish or at least a free cookie.

The surprising thing about pewees is that they are quite common here on Cape Cod, yet so many people are unfamiliar with them. Why? Probably because pewees are such a generic looking bird that most casual birders wouldn't even bother trying to identify one, even if they did see one. And seeing one is not easy. Pewees have no use for our feeders, bird seed, birdbaths or us in general. They like to keep to the trees. They are flycatchers, gray-brown, bland looking flycatchers. The only thing distinctive about them is their call. They say their name, "peee-weee", which is amazing when you think about it. Saying pee-wee might not sound like a big deal to us, but try saying it without moving your lips. Go ahead try it. You can't do it. Go ahead try, you know you want to. Pewees say their name all day long and never move their lips. Now are you impressed?

The Eastern Wood-pewee is still a common bird in these parts, but overall their numbers are starting to decline. It bear careful watching, which is tough since the bird is so hard to see.

If you are lucky enough to hear their call, start looking high, because pewees are likely to be fairly high up in the canopy, working on their nest. And if you think the bird is hard to find, don't even think about finding their nest. Their nests are a small cup of grass, which they cover with lichen. The lichen makes the nest blend in perfectly. Oddly, in recent years some pewees have replaced the natural lichen with artificial vinyl lichen. That has resulted in a rash of complaints from many of the other birds living in the neighborhood.

Like most flycatchers, pewees hunt for food by sitting quietly on a dead limb, high up in a tree, waiting for the food to come to them. Once food is spotted, the bird darts out, grabs the prey and returns to its hunting branch to eat. Imagine the bird's disappointment each time it returns to the perch only to discover it has to eat yet another fly. Day after day, nothing to eat but fly after fly. Just once I'm sure it would love to return to its hunting perch with a nice piece of chocolate or a dish of Ben and Jerry's or a slice of banana cream pie. Hmm, I think that's the third time I've mentioned food. Must be time for lunch, somewhere.

Happy birthday Laurence. I'm glad you got to hear the pewee again after all these years. It's nice to have those memories. And who knows, maybe it will grant you a wish. And if your wish happens to be a piece of banana cream pie, send a hunk my way, just hold the flies.

Artwork by Catherine Clark


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