Wildlife Profile

Eastern Wood Pewee (Contopus virens)
by Mark Johns

   Wild Facts about the Eastern Wood Pewee

This small, easily overlooked flycatcher is best known for hawking flights after insects and its distinctive song heard throughout much of the eastern United States and Canada during summer in wooded habitats. This bird spends most of its time high up in the canopy where it builds a cup-like nest that is rather cryptic. This bird is one of the last neotropical migrants to return from its main wintering areas in South America. It breeds in just about any type of wooded habitat in the east including woodlots, orchards, urban shade trees, roadsides and mature forest. Most often found in deciduous forest, it also breeds in open pine woods and even pine plantations in the southeastern United States. There are large gaps in our knowledge of the reproductive behavior and ecology of this species. Although still considered common, it has suffered significant population declines over the last 25 years.

History and Status

This bird in eastern North America favors deciduous forest, but also breeds in open pine woodlands in the south. It is also found in a variety of wooded habits such as woodlots, large shade trees in suburban and urban areas, orchards and roadsides. It is a neotropical migrant that winters mainly in northwestern South America and also in the southern parts of Central America. Neotropical (New World) migratory birds breed during summer in temperate North America, migrating north each spring from wintering areas, then fly back to spend the bulk of the year in Mexico, Central or South America, or the Caribbean.

Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) data show a significant decrease in numbers over the last 25 years. The range distribution of this bird does not seem to have changed form those described in the late 1800’s. The highest densities of the Eastern Wood-Pewee are found in the Piedmont of Virginia and West Virginia.


This is a medium-sized bird with a grayish olive color above and paler below. It has whitish wing-bars. Sexes are similar, and this bird usually sits in an upright position typical of many flycatchers. It hawks flying insects, but does not flick its wings or tail. In North Carolina, it is distinguished from the Eastern Phoebe by its smaller size, distinctive wing-bars, pale lower mandible and lack of tail wagging. It is separated from Empidonax flycatchers like the Acadian Flycatcher by its larger size, lack of an eye-ring and longer, pointy wings that extend at least halfway down the tail when perched.

Habitat and Habits

The Eastern Wood-Pewee breeds in about every type of wooded habitat in the East, and will use both deciduous and coniferous forest, especially in the South. It is often associated with forest clearings and edges, and tends to avoid streams in the east. It is likely a nocturnal migrant. During winter it can be found in a variety of wooded or shrubby habitats, or along edges.

Its typical songs include a distinctive, slurred Pee-ah-wee and a plaintive wee-ooo or wee-ur. It is basically a bird named for what its song sounds like. Singing is likely by only males, which begin to sing during spring migration. It usually begins to sing well before sunrise, and can sing throughout the day early in the breeding season. It can sometimes be heard singing at night. Most singing is from an exposed perch, and the Pee-ah-wee song seems to be used much more frequently than other song forms.

Nests are almost always in trees or saplings, and oaks are a common choice for nest sites. Most nests are well off the ground, and a good distance away from the main trunk on a horizontal limb. The nest is a shallow cup or bowl of woven grass, and the outside is usually covered with lichens that are likely held in place with spider web. It can look very much like a knot on the top of the supporting branch and they are very hard to spot.

Small flying insects taken during sallies from perches are the main food. Occasionally insects are gleaned from foliage or the ground. This bird uses perches in the subcanopy or canopy in clearings or along edges, and seems to prefer dead branches. Its foraging habits seem to be similar during migration and on the wintering grounds. A few birds will also feed on small fruits like dogwood, blueberries and poison ivy.

Range and Distribution

This is a bird common throughout the eastern United States and southeastern Canada. The Eastern Wood-Pewee is present throughout North Carolina as breeder. It is almost exclusively a neotropical migrant that winters mainly in the top parts of South America. Occasional birds may linger into early winter.

People Interactions

This bird uses both edge and forest interior for breeding, and is apparently not sensitive to forest fragmentation when choosing breeding sites. However, reproductive success in fragments of various sizes has not been documented. It occurs in small forest patches and along shrubby edges on the wintering grounds, and thus may persist well in areas that are not completely deforested.

Some experimental work in the northeast suggest that high populations of white-tailed deer may lower breeding populations of Pewee’s due to disturbance of the intermediate canopy structure in heavily browsed areas. A site studied dominated by pines and managed for Red-cockaded Woodpeckers by burning and thinning had significant higher population levels than on unmanaged sites. Collisions with TV towers and other structures have been documented, but have been low in all studies. Use of pesticides in forests, orchards and around people places can affect diet choices and lower fat stores in individual birds.

Suggested Readings

Neotropical Migratory Birds by DeGraaf and Rappole, 1995, Cornell Univ. Press
A guide to the birds of Columbia by Hilty and Brown, 1986, Princeton Univ. Press

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