Of all the birds that sing their own name, the eastern wood-pewee does it best. Every morning as I lie in bed just before dawn, I hear the usual spring chorus dominated by robins, cardinals and Carolina wrens.
In the background, from deeper in the woods, comes the pewee’s plaintive, two-part song — “pee-a-weee,” followed by a pause, then a down slurred “pee-urr.” The first phrase slurs upward and ends on a high note. Sometimes pewees sing the first phrase several times before repeating the down-slurred second phrase.
I use the adjective “plaintive,” meaning expressing suffering or woe, to describe the pewee’s song because that’s exactly the feeling it evokes. Or maybe I’ve been influenced by the many field guides that use that word to describe the song.
In either case, when you hear a pewee sing, I think you’ll agree “plaintive” is a perfect fit.
To see a pewee photo and hear its song, visit www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Wood-Pewee/sounds.
Prefer deciduous forest
Pewees prefer the deciduous forest and can be found in small patches of woods of just a few acres as well as in larger unbroken forest tracts.
Males sing most enthusiastically early in the morning and late in the day. Even a beginning birder should be able to recognize the sound.
Pewees are usually heard before they’re seen. They perch quietly in the mid-canopy on naked twigs and can be difficult to spot until they fly.
From these perches, pewees launch foraging flights in pursuit of flying insects. Often they return to the same perch, so once an individual is spotted, focus on its favorite perch. Each time it returns, you’ll get a good look.
Pewees are small, dull, nondescript members of the flycatcher family. Big head, big bill and fly catching behavior say “flycatcher.” The song says, “pewee.”
The only color is the dull orange lower bill. Adults also have white wing bars, white throat, white belly and a dark chest.
Tip for finding them
Another tip for finding pewees in the woods is to look for other species that occupy the same habitat. The presence of great-crested flycatchers, scarlet tanagers, ovenbirds, hooded warblers and wood thrushes tells me to be alert for pewees.
By expecting and looking for groups of species rather than individual species in particular habitats, birders are less likely to miss the less conspicuous birds.
Next time you see a pewee, watch it for 15 minutes as it flies back and forth to a feeding perch. As it sits quietly waiting for another morsel to fly by, you’ll notice the absence of two common flycatcher behaviors.
Pewees do not pump their tail or flick their wings. This further distinguishes pewees from tail pumping eastern phoebes and many other wing flicking flycatchers.
Pewees should be nesting by now. The male sings to advertise and defend the territory, while the female builds the nest. During incubation, the male feeds the female on the nest.
Compared to phoebes, which commonly nest on back porch light fixtures, pewee nests are hard to find. They are usually perched on a horizontal branch far from the trunk and at least 15 feet above the ground.
Often the branch that cradles the nest is dead. Placement of the nest far from the trunk and on a dead branch makes it difficult for large climbing predators to reach the nest.
The nest consists of a shallow, open cup of grass and other plant fibers. The outside of the nest is covered with sticky spider silk to which lichens are attached.
From the ground, a pewee nest is easily overlooked because it can pass for a lichen-covered knot. With the lichen camouflage, it resembles a super-sized hummingbird nest.
Clutch size is typically three eggs. The eggs are white and wreathed with brown blotches on the larger end. The female incubates the eggs for 12-13 days.
After hatching, both parents feed the young. The young fledge sometime after they reach 14 days of age.
Fall migration begins in August and peaks in mid-September. Pewees winter in South America.