Pacific-slope/Cordilleran Flycatcher – The “What Am I?” Bird

Hey!  They’re back, the “What Am I?” bird.  I heard them calling yesterday morning, so I’m resurrecting the story and capture done previously.

The “What Am I?” Bird

     The Pacific-slope Flycatcher and the Cordilleran Flycatcher are two of the most annoyingly difficult native bird species to field identify.  In fact, at one time, they were considered a single species, the now-obsolete designation of Western Flycatcher.  They are so similar in physical appearance as to be virtually impossible to be differentiated by sight alone.  So to me they truly have become the “What Am I?” bird.

     Over the past two seasons, a pair of the “What Am I?” bird set up housekeeping near our residence … but which of the two species did they represent?  The question was simple but the answer evasive.

     Some bird watchers, with hands frustratingly up in the air, refer to this confusing segment of the Tyrant Flycatcher family as simply “flycatchers”, while others rely on range maps and voice to try to identify and distinguish the two species from one another.  Not an easy task, though, especially where their extents overlap.  To add to the complexity of this quirky conundrum, there is scientific evidence indicating the two forms may interbreed where they are sympatric, that is where their ranges blend.

     What to do with this “What Am I?” bird?

     Sleuthing turned up that both the Pacific-slope Flycatcher and the Cordilleran Flycatcher may be uncommon breeders in our North Idaho area.  So, were these diminutive Empids one or the other, or maybe a mixed pair?  More questions than answers until the male gave voice.  His call held the tenor of a Pacific-slope Flycatcher.  However, no other vocalizations were given to corroborate what I heard and it still didn’t really answer the question if one or both adults were genetically admixed.

Difficult is the game I play,
yet my voice may point the way
to tell you who I really am.
But maybe not, could be a sham.
Cordilleran or Pacific-slope,
we sometimes overlap in scope.
When we do, affairs may change,
our genes might mix and rearrange.
Though we still appear alike,
hard to tell us just by sight.

     With time, the parent birds raised four spunky youngsters from the safety of the nest and then all moved on.  I no longer hear the lilting call of this elfin anomaly.  Whether they were strictly Pacific-slope Flycatchers, Cordilleran Flycatchers, or some genetic hybridization of such, the “What Am I?” bird was a true joy to experience.

~  Essay, poem and flycatcher capture, The “What Am I?” Bird © Jerry L. Ferrara