Adult male scissor-tailed flycatcher upperparts are pale gray with a long, black-and-white, forked tail. Underparts are pale gray with pinkish flanks. In flight, from below, the wing lining is bright pinkish or salmon. Females are whiter, with a yellowish tinge instead of salmon. Young individuals have shorter tails. Voice is a kek or kit or a repeated cac-wee or ca-leek in a series of jumbled, sputtering notes.
Similar species: Some 14 species of flycatchers have been recorded in Missouri, but this is our only one with such dramatically long tail feathers. The pale gray upperparts and orangish flanks are distinctive, too.
Length: 13 inches (tip of bill to tip of tail).
Potentially statewide, but by far most common in the southwestern quarter of the state.
Habitat and Conservation
Uncommon summer residents in grasslands with scattered trees — especially in southwestern Missouri prairies. Like other kingbirds, this species is very territorial. It energetically attacks and chases away intruders, including other flycatchers, doves, jays, grackles, turkey vultures, and even crows and hawks.
Like other flycatchers, this species forages for flying insects by sallying from a perch situated in an open area. A quick, fluttery flight and the insect is snatched in midair. Then the flycatcher returns to the same perch, sometimes whacking the prey against the branch before eating it. Grasshoppers, crickets, and beetles are their favorite foods, though other insects, and a small amount of fruit, round out the diet. Like the eastern kingbird, it eats much more fruit in winter.
As a summer resident, uncommon in southwestern Missouri, casual elsewhere. As a transient (spring and fall migrant), common in the southwest and rare elsewhere. As a winter visitor, accidental in the northwest. Uncontrolled hunting in the 1800s of these and other birds for hat feathers and other adornments decimated their populations. Fortunately, in the early 1900s scientists and leading women of fashion recognized what was happening and quickly took action to protect birds.
Scissor-tailed flycatchers arrive in Missouri in April. Cup nests of plant stems and other materials, including human trash, are built in trees situated in open areas. A clutch comprises 3–6 eggs, which are incubated 13–23 days. The young fledge 14–17 days after hatching. There can be 1 or 2 broods a year. During October, scissor-tailed flycatchers gather in large flocks to fly south and spend winter in southern Mexico and Central America.
The beauty and grace of birds and their feathers have enchanted us probably as long as humans have walked the earth. Market hunting in the 1800s for decorative plumes injured many bird populations so badly, they’re still recovering. That crisis led to the conservation movement.
Scissor-tailed flycatchers serve as a natural check on insect populations, helping control the numbers of the insects they hunt. In their wintering grounds when they eat more berries and other fruits, they probably play a role in spreading the seeds they swallow.