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By Jody Allair, Director of Community Engagement at Birds Canada

Some birds just capture the imagination like no other. Birds that characterize far-off wilderness filled with Black Spruce bogs, scenic mountain valleys, and perilous long distance migrations to lush tropical worlds. For me, one of these birds is the Olive-sided Flycatcher. So what a perfect bird to take center stage as Birds Canada’s 2024 Avian Ambassador.
An Olive-sided flycatcher perches on a branch
An Olive-Sided Flycatcher perches on a branch. Photo: Ian Burgess

They are the quintessential long-distance migratory songbird. Incredible journeys, tough-as-nails appearance, and beautifully regal even without the elaborate ornate coloring of their wood-warbler neighbours. And as much as I would love to wax poetic about how this well-postured denizen of Canada’s boreal forest represents Canada – it is in fact a bird that is shared across the hemisphere, with the majority of their time spent on migration and in their Central and South American post-breeding grounds. 

There are many stories to be told here. Olive-sided Flycatchers tick all the conservation red flags – they’re an aerial insectivore (the fastest declining group of birds in Canada), they travel very long distances, and face numerous challenges ranging from climate change, habitat loss on breeding, post-breeding, and migratory stopover sites, windows, lights….the list could go on but the point has been made. This unheralded bird deals with a lot during its life.

We hope that by sharing stories of the Olive-sided Flycatcher throughout the year we can draw attention to the issues facing boreal birds, the importance of intact forested ecosystems in northern South America, and the issues facing all of our long-distance migratory birds. 

But first, let’s get to know a little bit more about the Olive-sided Flycatcher.

Life History

An Olive-Sided Flycatcher in flight. Photo: Joachim Bertrands
In Canada, the Olive-sided Flycatcher can be found throughout coniferous forests from Newfoundland to British Columbia, and as far north as the northern Yukon and Northwest Territories. Generally they prefer mature forests next to open wetland areas such as bogs, fens, and rivers, but they can also be found adjacent to, or even within, burned areas. One of the key things they require is tall prominent perches with lots of open space for aerial foraging.
The Olive-sided Flycatcher is a super migrant traveling from the far northern reaches of the Canadian boreal forest down as far as the Andes Mountains of South America during the fall. In spring they typically arrive back to their Canadian breeding range in mid-May, where they will defend massive territories (up to 45 hectares!) and have a single brood with 3-4 eggs. 

These are impressive-looking birds. They’re medium-sized songbirds, 18-20 cm in length, and weigh 32-37 grams (about the same as a standard 60-watt lightbulb). Olive-sideds have a crested head shape, with long wings and a relatively short, and slightly forked, tail. They are dark olive-gray above with white underparts which contrast with their diagnostic brownish-gray streaked vest and sides. Other features that are often visible with closer looks include white patches on the sides of the rump, dark gray chevrons on their undertail coverts, and a very large dark bill that has an orange lower mandible. 

For me, one of the best ID features for this species is their posture. They tend to sit upright for extended periods on the very top of large trees or snags.

From here they will watch for prey (generally large insects) and then suddenly swoop out (this feeding behavior is also known as sallying) to grab a flying insect and return to the same perch to scarf down lunch.

An Olive-Sided Flycatcher in its characteristic posture. Photo: Ian Burgess
But the single best ID feature for the Olive-sided Flycatcher is hands down their loud whistled song: QUICK, THREE BEERS! It was one of the first bird song mnemonics I learned as a kid and in my opinion, it’s one of the best songs of any bird.
Here are some other cool facts about the Olive-sided Flycatcher:


  • Their bills are so strong you can often here a loud SNAP when they grab an unsuspecting insect out of the air
  • And speaking of insects—Bees are one of their preferred foods
  • Olive-sided Flycatchers are actually a type of Pewee in the genus Contopus
  • The oldest recorded Olive-sided Flycatcher was over 7 years old
The Olive-sided Flycatcher’s population has been declining steadily across their range. In Canada they are listed as Special Concern under the Species at Risk Act. One of the big factors contributing to their population decline is habitat loss on their South American post-breeding grounds and to an extent on their breeding grounds. This group of birds, aerial insectivores, has been declining steadily since the 1970s and according to the 2019 State of Canada’s Birds Report, they represent the most imperiled group of birds in Canada. Insect population declines, pesticides (such as Neonicotinoides), and even climate change affecting seasonal prey availability, are all probable contributors to this negative long-term trend.

I hope this will inspire you to get outside in 2024 and try and see our Avian Ambassador— the amazing Olive-sided Flycatcher, first hand. If you happen to live within the boreal region or the mountain forests of western Canada, look for them in those forest edge habitats throughout May and July. And here’s a great tip for those trying to find one on migration. In spring, Olive-sideds come through southern Canada fairly quickly. However, their fall migration is extremely protracted and starts in late July and early August. I often can find an Olive-sided Flycatcher during mid to late August at a local park or greenspace  – especially if there are some nice tall conifers or snags to perch on.

Stay tuned for more stories, highlights, research, and more about this incredible bird, the Olive-sided Flycatcher throughout 2024! 


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