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Flycatcher Bristles

Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Many birds that feed on flying insects have bristles around the mouth. Flycatchers are famous for darting from a perch to nab flying insects. Eastern Phoebes often take residence and build a nest under carport ceilings. 

We are the proud owners of a carport that for decades phoebes have claimed for nest building. Though individual birds usually only get to live a few years, we have continuous occupants. The nests are constructed with vegetation and lined with moss. They are a cup that sits mostly hidden on a flat surface among rafters. These birds prefer to have a roof over them that protects nestlings from inclement weather and predators. 

Squirrels cannot access the ceiling beams. We have placed shelf platforms with a roof for robins and phoebes but over the decades none have been used. I have placed them in the carport and on the sides of trees, but they do not attract birds as suitable nesting sites. 

Our carport is on the upland above a low floodplain where birds stand on various perches and sally out to catch flying insects. They also stand on oak or hickory tree branches at the edge of the yard and fly out and down to take insects below them. Seldom do they fly upward. Several smooth sumac shrubs grow at the edge of the yard. Sumacs make great perches where the birds make very short flights to snatch insects among the branches or dart toward the ground where low flying insects are captured. 

Many insects fly close to the ground, so it is common for phoebes to gather food low. When walking in your yard on a sunny still day, bend down with an outstretched hand. When your hand gets close to the ground you will feel a sudden rise in temperature. This is an activity I often did with children at the Howard Christensen Nature Center. We also used thermometers to document temperature. When the air is fairly still on a cool sunny day, the warmth near the ground is especially obvious. Even on breezy days, it becomes obvious in protected forests where wind is slowed but sunlight still penetrates the open canopy. 

Our yard is wonderfully unkempt with great plant variety. No monoculture of grass is desired. Fewer insects inhabit a monoculture and fewer birds thrive. I allow large sections of the yard to grow with wildflowers like maiden pink that other people might refer to as weeds. Such a yard promotes richness of life and insects. I enjoy the spring and summer flowers and delay mowing until most flowers have bloomed and gone to seed. 

As for bristle faced Eastern Phoebes, migrating rare Olive-sided Flycatchers, Eastern Wood Peewees, and Eastern Kingbirds, the insect menu is large and appealing. The number of flycatcher species is large across the continent and world. A group of nearly identical looking flycatchers in the Empidonax Genus thrive in the region and are distinguished best by their songs. Each utilizes a specialized habitat.

Surrounding their large gaping mouth are sensory bristles that aid food capture. The birds can feel the presence and location of an insect in the mouth opening. They can turn their head in the direction of the insect if it is off centered to improve capture success. 

Flycatchers are not the only family of birds with facial bristles. Whip-poor-wills and nighthawks that feed at dusk and during the night have feeding success aided by bristles. Bristles are actually specialized naked feathers with no or few side barbs. Sensory nerves are located at the base of feather bristles.

Protective bristles are present in some species. I notice woodpeckers at the feeders have more noticeable nasal bristles than other bird groups such as sparrows and finches. The tree pecking behavior of woodpeckers flings small debris toward the face. The bristles help protect nasal passages. Turkey Vultures have mostly bare-naked heads with bristles that are easier to clean after sticking their heads into a dead animal. 

Observe nature niche adaptations among birds to determine which have bristles and figure out their function. 

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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