Eastern Wood Pewee

Eastern Wood Pewee

The Eastern Wood Pewee, Contopus virens, is a small tyrant flycatcher from North America. This bird and the Western Wood Pewee were formerly considered to be a single species. The two species are virtually identical in appearance, and can be distinguished most easily by their calls.


Adults are grey-olive on the upperparts with light underparts, washed with olive on the breast. They have two wing bars; the upper part of the bill is dark, the lower part is yellowish. The song is a mournful whistled pee-a'wee given in a series, which gave this bird its name.

The Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) is highly similar, particularly in the worn plumage after breeding. It always lacks clearly-defined wing-bands however, bobs its tail frequently, and in fresh plumage has a marked buffy hue to the belly. The Eastern Phoebe is also present on the breeding grounds by early-mid April and building nests weeks before the Eastern Wood Pewees arrive. They are hardest to tell apart when they leave for winter quarters, as the phoebes have very worn plumage by then, and both species migrate south around September. The songs are similar, but that of the Eastern Phoebe lacks the short middle note.

The Least Flycatcher (Empidonax minimus) is almost identical to the Eastern Wood Pewee in plumage, but a bit more dusky (though it also has the crisp wing-bars) and most importantly distincly smaller.


Their breeding habitat is deciduous or mixed woods in eastern North America. These birds migrate to Central America and in the Andes region of northern South America. They feed on insects and other arthropods. Pewees wait on a perch at a middle height in a tree and fly out to catch prey in flight, sometimes hovering to pick it from vegetation.

Eastern Wood Pewees arrive late in their in their breeding range and stay just as long as it takes to raise a single brood. They are rarely seen on their breeding grounds before the last days of April. They migrate south at a more usual time, leaving sometimes in late August but most often in September. Migration times have stayed the same in the last 100 years.


They make an open cup nest made of grasses and lichen and attached to a horizontal tree branch with mud. The female lays 3-4 translucent-white eggs. The eggs change to an off-white or cream color within a couple of days from preen oils that rub off from the plumage. At the same time, brown or chestnut spots or freckles appear on the eggs. These spots can be a few in number or they can cover the entire egg; in which case, they are more concentrated towards the larger end of the ovate egg.

The eggs hatch in 12-14 days and both parents bring food to the hatchlings, which are not precocious. The hatchlings are pink initially but soon start to grow feathers that are brownish-grey in color and help the hatchlings blend in with their surroundings. The hatchlings typically fledge 15-17 days after hatching; often ending up on the ground during the first flight out of the nest. The adults will perch on a nearby branch and call out to the hatchlings, keeping contanct and providing them with food until the young are able to fly to join them. Young pewees one finds on the ground are thus usually not abandoned by their parents even if these appear absent - they are simply keeping a low profile, attempting to avoid drawing attention to their young. Young birds may indeed be abandoned by their parent, but only if the offspring are sick and dying. Such birds have no real chance to survive even if taken in human care.

Conservation status

Although still common, widespread, and not considered globally threatened, the numbers of this bird are declining, possibly due to the loss of forest habitat in its winter range. It is also possible that the increase of White-tailed Deer in its breeding range has led to a change in vegetation and associated invertebrates in the lower levels of the deciduous forests where the Eastern Pewee breeds.



  • Database entry includes justification for why this species is of least concern
  • (1906): A preliminary list of the birds of Seneca County, Ohio. Wilson Bull. 18(2): 47-60. DjVu fulltext PDF fulltext
  • (2004): Annotated Ohio state checklist. Version of April 2004. PDF fulltext

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