Exotic Bird of the Southern Plains

Birders who travel across the Southern Plains will usually observe a wide variety of raptors and grassland songbirds; in spring and fall, they may also find migrant flocks of waterfowl, sandhill cranes, American white pelicans and shorebirds.  One species, however, is often noticed by non-birders as well.

Looking like they belong in the tropics rather than on the semiarid plains, scissor-tailed flycatchers are easily identified by their long, thin, forked tail (which is longer in adult males than in females and juveniles).  After wintering in Mexico, Central America, southern Florida or the Bahamas, these exotic-looking birds summer from central latitudes of Kansas and western Missouri to South Texas and northernmost Mexico.  Often seen flycatching from barbed wire fences in open country, pairs are highly territorial during the breeding season; nests, which usually contain a mix of native vegetation and human-made materials, are placed in shrub lines or tree groves adjacent to grasslands.  Large insects, such as crickets and grasshoppers, account for much of their diet but these attractive hunters also glean smaller prey from leaves and twigs.  By late summer, scissor-tailed flycatchers begin to roost in large flocks before heading south.

While Interstate 70 is near the northern edge of their range, I often see these flycatchers along the stretch between Topeka and Salina.  Today, as I drove westward, an adult male made a bee-line across the highway near Junction City, Kansas, its long forked tail streaming in its wake.