All About the Vermilion Flycatcher

Pyrocephalus rubinus

Vermilion Flycatcher - Male
Katja Schulz

Though many flycatchers are unremarkably drab, the vermilion flycatcher is the most colorful flycatcher in North America. The males are unmistakable with their brilliant red plumage, and even the females have strong washes of color that make them stand out.

Common Name: Vermilion Flycatcher

Scientific Name: Pyrocephalus rubinus

Scientific Family: Tyrannidae

Appearance

  • Bill: Short, straight, black
  • Size: 6 inches long with 9.5-10-inch wingspan, small crest
  • Colors: Red, brown, black, buff, white, yellow, pink
  • Markings: Dimorphic species. Males have a bright red head and underparts with a thick dark chocolate brown eye line or straight mask that connects to the brown nape, back, wings and tail. The lores are also dark, and the undertail coverts are bright red. In bright light, males may appear almost fluorescent. Females are a lighter brown on the head and back, with slightly darker wings and tail. The chin and throat are white, and the white chest has blurred buff or brownish streaking. Females may show a faint white eyebrow and a buff wash on the lower abdomen that becomes yellow or pinkish on the undertail coverts.
    Juveniles look similar to adult females at first but are paler overall. Young males gradually darken on the upperparts and have a mottled red-and-yellowish underside until they fully molt to their adult coloration.

Habitat and Migration

Vermilion flycatchers prefer open arid or semiarid habitats with brushy growth, and they are frequently found near riparian areas in these dry climates, including near artificial water sources such as irrigation ditches and water treatment facilities. These birds are found year-round in Mexico and South America as far south as Argentina, while summer populations may stray into southern Arizona, New Mexico, southeastern California and Texas. In the winter, northern populations migrate to the Gulf Coast of Mexico and to interior regions of South America, primarily in Brazil.

Vagrant sightings are often recorded far outside this bird's expected range, including as far north as Washington, Oregon, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ontario. Many vagrant birds are also seen in Florida and along the Gulf Coast. Wherever these birds appear, particularly males, they generate intense interest because of their spectacular plumage.

Vocalizations

Vermilion flycatchers have a high, rapid “pip-pip-pip-pip” song that lasts roughly 10 syllables and increases in tempo at the end. They also have a sharp, “peeeent” trill call.

Behavior

These are tame birds but generally remain solitary or in pairs. While foraging, they perch in an open area and watch for insects, which they then hover to catch. They perch low in shrubs and small trees, dipping their tails distinctively, and they often return to the same perch over and over, which can give birders great viewing and photography opportunities.

Reproduction

Vermilion flycatchers are monogamous. The nest is a small cup made of twigs, grass, weeds, rootlets and other fine material, lined with feathers and down and often bound together with hair or spider webs. Some nests are even decorated with lichen for camouflage. Nests are positioned 5-50 feet above the ground.

The female parent will incubate a brood of 2-4 oval-shaped, eggs for 14-15 days. The eggs are white with bold spotting that may be brown, gray or purplish. After hatching, both parents work to feed the altricial young for an additional 15 days until the fledglings are ready to leave the nest. A mated pair can raise 2 broods per year.

These flycatchers occasionally host cowbird brood parasites.

Attracting Vermilion Flycatchers

These birds do not regularly visit backyard feeders, but they will come to yards that offer a water source such as a pond or bird bath. Birders who plant shrubs and low trees will give vermilion flycatchers a place to perch, and avoiding pesticide and insecticide sprays will give the birds a ready food source. Preserving spider webs will also help give these birds nesting material to entice them to stay nearby.

Conservation

While these flycatchers are not considered threatened or endangered, overuse of pesticides can dramatically reduce their available food supplies. In Texas and southeastern California, populations are slowly decreasing. Preserving habitat and minimizing pesticide contamination is vital to slow population loss and ensure the continued success of these birds.

Similar Birds

  • Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea)
  • Say’s Phoebe (Sayornis saya)
  • Hepatic Tanager (Piranga flava)