Great Kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus): Barry Kent MacKay

Great Kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus)

This recent oil painting shows a species of bird that is widely distributed, common, and rather well-known where it occurs, from the lower Rio Grande River basin south as far as Argentina and Uruguay.  It is also common in Bermuda, that population derived from birds put there in 1957 to control the non-native anole lizards.  It eats them, but not enough to noticeably reduce the population.  Native to Trinidad, the Great Kiskadee was successfully introduced to nearby Tobago about fifty years ago.  

The name “kiskadee” is supposed to sound like its call.  It is the only species in its genus, Pitangus, which derives from Pitangua-guacu, the term the used by the native Tupi native people for a large flycatcher, according to Georg Marcgrave (1610 – 1644), the German naturalist-astronomer and cartographer who first described the bird in his posthumously published Historia Naturalis Brasiliae, in 1648.  It was Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707 – 1778), who invented the way scientific names are determined, who called it by its present species name, in 1766, “sulphuratus” being Latin for sulphur, the colour of the bird’s breast.   English naturalist and artist (who also painted birds!), William Swainson (1789 – 1855) came up with the genus, Pitangus, in 1827.  And finally, it is called the Great to distinguish it from the smaller Lesser Kiskadee (Philohydor lictor) which has much the same colour and pattern but is smaller, and does not range north of Panama, although otherwise sharing much the same range as the larger species.  The Lesser was originally put in the same genus, Pitangus, and is still put there by some ornithologists.  Finally, there was a time when the English name of the Great Kiskadee was the Derby Flycatcher.  When I was a kid I presumed it was  because its largish-headed look reminded someone of a derby hat.  But my very good friend, A. David Brewer, tells me that, “Derbiana comes from Edward Smith Stanley, (1775-1851),13th earl of Derby (pronounced Darby). He was a major amateur ornithologist & very rich. Hence there are about seven derbianas or derbyanas, one derbyi, one Derbyomia, two stanleyis and four “Stanley’s” something.”

Kiskadees belong in the family of birds collectively known as the Tyrant-flycatchers, or Tyrannidae.  Many of the larger species, including those called kingbirds, and certainly this one, are “tyrannical” in their defence of territory against birds much larger than themselves, including both predators such as hawks and crows, and those more harmless species, such as herons.  Great Kiskadees typically sit on an exposed perch from which they dart out after flying insects, but they will snatch such prey as small lizards and snakes, even small rodents, plus some berries and other fruit, and will even snatch tiny fish or tadpoles from near the surface of calm water.  Soft food such as banana may entice them to bird feeders.   Bold, noisy, and colourful, these birds often occur in urban parks and gardens. 

This oil painting, approximately life size, is 12 inches by 9 inches, in oils on compressed hardboard and was published as a cover for Ontario Birds, journal of the Ontario Field Ornithologists, honouring the fact that a Great Kiskadee once actually showed up in Ontario, far from its tropical and subtropical native haunts. I’ve also included a very old painting I did in acrylic on illustration board, and a pen and ink study of the same species, both from several decades ago.  

Barry Kent MacKay

Bird Artist, Illustrator

Studio: (905) 472 9731

mimus@sympatico.ca

31 Colonel Butler Drive

Markham, ON L3P 6B6 Canada

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