CUBAN PEWEE: ‘NATURE’S LEAST SCARY TYRANT’
The small bird featured here is a CUBAN PEWEE Contopus caribaeus bahamensis (sometimes called the Crescent-eyed Pewee – see image for why this is so). It is without a doubt a tyrant. At barely 6″ long, it is the smallest tyrant you are likely to encounter in the Bahamas or indeed anywhere else. However it does happen to be a member of the family Tyranidae. These are the flycatchers, and on Abaco they include the larger LA SAGRA’S FLYCATCHER, the still larger LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD and (a summer visitor only) the GRAY KINGBIRD (this last link explains the difference between the two kingbirds).
The Cuban Pewee is permanently resident on Abaco, and can be found in both pine woods and coppice. When returning to its perch after a fly-catching sortie – ‘hawking’ on the wing – this wee bird gives a characteristic flick of the tail. The bird featured here was in the rough scrub behind the beach of the beautiful bay at Casuarina. It became a favourite of mine simply by being completely unafraid of me, and accepting my extremely slow approach (3 inches at a time) with apparent interest mixed in with an endearing willingness to pose, even when I could almost have reached out and touched it.
Unlike many creatures, it did not seem concerned by eye-contact. It responded when I made a faint clicking sound by rather sweetly putting its head on one side. However, as I got as close to it as I dared, it began to fidget slightly (possibly feeling camera-shy). So I shuffled slowly back, so as not to disturb it in its own territory, where it was the resident and I was the intruder.
These close-ups clearly show the tiny hooked tip at the end of the upper beak, which (as in other tyrant species) relates to the business of catching flies. Also like other flycatchers, the Cuban Pewee has very distinctive whiskers around the base of the beak. In fact, these are not whiskers as such – not hairs so much as feathers that have modified into bristles. These act as ‘tactile sensors’ to assist the detection and targeting of aerial insects as the bird darts from a perch to intercept some passing tasty winged morsel.
The range of the Cuban Pewee is limited almost entirely to Cuba and the Bahamas, so it is very region specific. And how lucky we are to have these cute little specimens on Abaco. I note that the Audubon site calls them drab, which I think is a little unfair. Merely because a bird is not decked out like a PAINTED BUNTING or startlingly marked like a male RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD does not make it drab. I prefer the word ‘subtle’. I like GRASSQUITS too, for the same reason: too often maligned as ‘dull’.
It is sometimes tempting to anthropomorphise such close encounters in terms of imputed human / creature empathy. It is probably best to try to resist that attitude (‘inter-species condescension’, as you might term it). But as I withdrew, leaving this little bird undisturbed on its branch, I did experience a strange feeling of mutual understanding and… [I must interrupt myself here. I’m a lawyer, so that’s quite enough of that sort of emotive nonsense]
All photos: Keith Salvesen; Range Map, Cornell
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