One of the most striking of all flycatchers, both in its colouration and its courtship behaviour, the male vermilion flycatcher is a small but unmistakable bird. The head, underparts and bushy-crested crown are a brilliant scarlet colour (2) (3) (4), contrasting strongly with the black eyestripe, beak and legs, and the sooty-black to blackish-brown back, wings and tail (2) (3) (5). Unusually for the Tyrannidae family (3) (5), the female vermilion flycatcher has a very different appearance, with a pale, greyish-brown head, back and wings, a blackish tail, and a whitish throat and underparts (2) (3) (4). The underparts show variable amounts of dusky streaking, and the lower belly ranges in colour from whitish to yellow, pink, salmon or vermilion. Juveniles resemble the female, but have whiter wing edges and a whitish lower belly, without the yellow or pink tinge, while immature males may have variable amounts of pink, orange or red mottling on the head and underparts. Some populations of vermilion flycatcher also show melanistic (dark) forms, which are particularly common around Lima in Peru (2) (3). The vermilion flycatcher typically perches quite conspicuously in open areas, often dipping its tail up and down (2) (3) (6). Its calls include a distinctive ‘peent’, given by both the male and female, and a musical song given by the male during display flights (2) (7) (8).
Twelve subspecies of vermilion flycatcher have been identified, based on variations in plumage colour, though further research may be needed to clarify the boundaries between these (2). Of these subspecies, Pyrocephalus rubinus nanus and Pyrocephalus rubinus dubius, which are restricted to the Galapagos Islands, are sometimes treated as different species to the mainland forms. Only some of the males of these two subspecies have bright red plumage (2) (9).
- Also known as
- vermillion flycatcher.
- Length: 13 - 14 cm (2)
- 11 - 14 g (2)
Vermilion flycatcher biology
As its name suggests, the vermilion flycatcher feeds on insects, including flies, butterflies, grasshoppers, beetles, termites, bees and spiders. Hunting takes places from an exposed perch, from which the flycatcher darts out to snatch passing prey in the air, or sometimes drops to take it from the ground (2) (4) (6).
During the breeding season, the male vermilion flycatcher performs a spectacular display flight. Fluffing out the feathers and raising the crest on the head, the male flies up, flapping furiously, to about 30 or more metres in the air, before hovering for a few moments and dropping back down to a perch, all the while repeating his musical song (2) (3) (6). Breeding usually takes place between March and July in the far north of the species’ range, and between October and January in the far south. The nest is built in a horizontal fork of a tree, and comprises a shallow cup of twigs, grass, small roots and lichens, held together with spiderwebs and lined with feathers and hair (2) (6). Two to three eggs are laid, and are incubated by the female for 13 to 15 days, during which time the male will often bring food to the female at the nest (2) (4) (8). Both the male and female vermilion flycatcher help feed the young, which fledge after about 13 to 18 days, and the pair may then go on to raise a second brood (2) (4). Vermilion flycatcher nests are sometimes parasitised by cowbirds, brood parasites that use the vermilion flycatcher as hosts to raise the cowbirds’ young (2) (10).
Vermilion flycatcher range
The vermilion flycatcher has a wide range across South and Central America and the southwestern United States of America, and also occurs on the Galapagos Islands (2) (3) (4). Populations from the southern USA and northwest Mexico migrate south as far as Central America in winter (2) (4), while those in the far south of South America migrate north as far as Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador (2) (3). Some populations also move to lower altitudes outside of the breeding season (2).
Vermilion flycatcher habitat
Inhabiting a variety of open habitats, including open woodland, clearings, arid and desert scrub, savanna and agricultural land, the vermilion flycatcher can be found at elevations of up 3,050 metres. Although often found in arid areas, it tends to stay near water, often occurring in riparian vegetation (2) (3) (4).
Vermilion flycatcher status
Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).
Vermilion flycatcher threats
The vermilion flycatcher has a large range and a large global population, and is not currently considered globally threatened (2) (11). Population declines have been reported in the southwestern USA, mainly due to habitat loss, as the riparian vegetation on which the species depends has come under pressure from wood-cutting, cattle grazing and water-management policies (2) (4) (10). However, in other areas the vermilion flycatcher has benefitted from man-made habitats, such as golf courses and parks, leading to local population increases (2) (10).
Perhaps the most threatened populations of the vermilion flycatcher occur in the Galapagos Islands. Numbers of both the Galapagos subspecies are small and apparently declining, and P. r. dubius may even now be extinct on San Cristóbal (12) (13) (14). Bird species in these islands face a number of threats, including unplanned and inadequately controlled tourism, human population growth, urban development, and invasion by non-native species, which can act as predators or as agents of disease (14) (15). However, in the case of the vermilion flycatcher, the reasons for the population decline are unclear (12) (13).
Vermilion flycatcher conservation
There are no known specific conservation measures in place for this species. However, management measures suggested in parts of the USA include the preservation of suitable riparian habitat through restricted access, removal of livestock and prevention of tree cutting, as well as habitat improvement through removal of non-native species and the planting of native trees (10). More research may be needed to identify the causes of the declines in the Galapagos Islands, and measures put in place to prevent exotic avian diseases taking hold here (14). Although designated as a National Park and a World Heritage Site (15), more may also need to be done to address the problems of increasing tourism and human population growth on the Galapagos Islands, if its wildlife is to receive adequate protection.
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- Brood parasite
- An animal that lays its eggs in the nests of members of its own or other species; the host then raises the young as their own.
- To keep eggs warm so that development is possible.
- A composite organism made up of a fungus in a co-operative partnership with an alga. Owing to this partnership, lichens can thrive in harsh environments such as mountaintops and polar regions. Characteristically forms a crustlike or branching growth on rocks or tree trunks.
- Parasitism is an interaction between species in which one organism derivesits food from, and lives in or on, another living organism at the host’s expense.
- Relating to the banks of watercourses.
- A population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
- IUCN Red List (January, 2009)
- del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (2004) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 9: Cotingas to Pipits and Wagtails. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
- Ridgely, R.S. and Tudor, G. (1994) The Birds of South America: The Suboscine Passerines. Volume II. University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas.
- Wolf, B.O. and Jones, S.L. (2000) The Birds of North America Online: Vermilion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
- Burton, M. and Burton, R. (2002) International Wildlife Encyclopedia. Third Edition. Marshall Cavendish, New York.
- Kaufman, K. (2001) Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, Massachusetts.
- Taylor, W.K. and Hanson, H. (1970) Observations on the breeding biology of the vermilion flycatcher in Arizona. The Wilson Bulletin, 82(3): 315 - 319.
- Ríos-Chelén, A.A. and Macias-García, C. (2004) Flight display song of the vermilion flycatcher. The Wilson Bulletin, 116(4): 360 - 362.
- Lack, D. (1983) Darwin’s Finches. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- U.S. Department of the Interior - Bureau of Land Management, California: Vermilion Flycatcher Pyrocephalus rubinus (February, 2009)
- BirdLife International (February, 2009)
- Wiedenfeld, D.A. and Jiménez-Uzcátegui, G.A. (2008) Critical problems for bird conservation in the Galápagos Islands. Cotinga, 29: 22 - 27.
- Wiedenfeld, D.A. (2006) Aves, the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. Check List, 2(2): 1 - 27.
- Wikelski, M., Foufopoulos, J., Vargas, H. and Snell, H. (2004) Galápagos birds and diseases: invasive pathogens as threats for island species. Ecology and Society, 9(1): 5 - .
- UNEP-WCMC: Galápagos Islands National Park and Marine Reserve, Ecuador (February, 2009)