…but not in the way you think.
The good news is that it isn’t actually sad. And since it’s locally common, it doesn’t need to be. Now the bad news: of all the names it could have had, it’s been lumped with one of the worst.
Hailing from Jamaica, this little flitter seems pretty cheerful. It has a peppy song, dashes from tree to ground snipping insects, and its brown feathers are perked up by a white throat and yellow belly.
While the first person to record it in 1827 – Swainson – didn’t think it was “sad”, he still thought it fit to call it the “black-billed tyrant-bird” (Tyrannula barbirostris). So its name started off awesome rather than bad, but I should explain why it’s not ridiculous.
I’ve talked about birds in the Tyrannidae family before (with even more amusing names), and the “tyrant” part actually comes from the name “kingbird”. Since sarcasm is the one thing we don’t throw into a scientific name, you’re probably wondering how this is relevant to such dinky birds. It’s because they’re apparently badass enough to attack snakes and even birds of prey when defending their territory. And at just under 17cm (7 inches) long, the sad flycatcher would definitely earn the title of “kingbird” if it scared off something so huge!
Swainson on the other hand was something of a jester, because he mistook this flitter’s homeland for Mexico. Of course, that wasn’t the only thing that got mixed up in the sad flycatcher’s record.
In 1847, Gosse spent a fleeting amount of time in Jamaica and in response to the flycatcher’s song, which was “A single wailing note, somewhat protracted, particularly sad to hear”, he named it Myiobius tristis, with tristis meaning “sad”, hence “sad flycatcher”.
Birds Caribbean think he actually confused it with the mournful chirrup of the Jamaican peewee (Contopus pallidus), which he also discovered. Regardless, the name stuck, but take heart little flycatcher, because an even worse adjective could have been flung your way.
Nearly 40 years later in 1882, Salvin came up with Blacicus barbirostris, from the Latin blakikos meaning “lazy”.
The sad flycatcher is a very active bird, but the name may have something to do with it returning to the same perch every time it dashes after an insect.
According to Bergin, this is also where its local name, Little Tom Fool, comes from: it tends to choose a low branch that’s “within easy reach of the bystander’s hand” (so “tom fool” from “tomfoolery”). Sometimes you just can’t win!
It didn’t get a more respectable scientific name until later in the 1880s, and it’s been Myiarchus barbirostris ever since. Sclater translated this as “bearded petchary”, which, judging by the need to Google what “petchary” means, suggests it’s not quite as catchy as “sad flycatcher”. (A petchary is a grey kingbird (Tyrannus dominicensis), if you’re wondering.)
Going by Jobling’s Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names, it translates (very roughly!) as “fly chief with a bearded bill”. As in a literal fly, but I’m sure it wouldn’t argue with the Urban Dictionary version.
It’s the smallest of the three Myiarchus species in Jamaica, so calling it a “chief” must have been an ego boost at least. Alas, it’s still mostly known as the sad flycatcher.
Was it the best of a bad bunch?
Sad Flycatcher Fact File
What? A small songbird from Jamaica.
Latin: Myiarchus barbirostris, meaning (very roughly!) “fly chief with a bearded bill”.
Where? Jamaica, in most forests, pastures, and urban areas.
How big? About 16.5cm / 6.5 inches long.
First recorded? Back in 1827 by Swainson.
Diet? The clue’s in the name, but it also eats small fruits as well as insects.
Behaviour? It’s an agile little bird which nests in holes, either natural or man-made. Breeding is between April and June, and while both parents feed the chicks, Mum does most of the incubating. She lays 3-4 spotted eggs, which hatch after 12-16 days. The chicks can try their hand at flying 14-17 days after that.
Endangered? Even though its numbers seem to be dropping, and it’s restricted to Jamaica, it’s listed as Least Concern for the time being. It’s apparently quite common locally.
Featured Image Credit: “Sad Flycatcher_19-03-13_Myiarchus barbirostris“ by Dave Curtis.
Just to prove I’m not fibbing:
BirdLife International. 2016. “Myiarchus barbirostris. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species” 2016: e.T22700402A93773579.
Benson, C.W. 1999. “Type specimens of bird skins in the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, United Kingdom“. British Ornithologists’ Club and University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge.
Bergin, Mike. 2009. “Talking About Tom Fool Birds“. About 10,000 Birds.
Cory, C.B. 1892. “Catalogue of West Indian Birds“. Published by the author.
Cory, C.B., and Hellmayr, C. E. 1927. “Catalogue of birds of the Americas and the adjacent islands in Field Museum of Natural History and including all species and subspecies known to occur in North America, Mexico, Central America, South America, the West Indies, and islands of the Caribbean Sea, the Galapagos Archipelago, and other islands which may properly be included on account of their faunal affinities.” Part V. Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago.
“From the Nest – Day 45“. 2020. BirdsCaribbean.org.
Gallardy, Ross. “XC308423” (Sad flycatcher song). Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/308423.
Hentze, Nathan. “XC264339” (Jamaican peewee song). Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/264339.
Jobling, James A. 2010. “Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names“. Christopher Helm, London.
Oates, Eugene W., and Reid, Savile G. 1903. “Catalogue of the Collection of Birds’ Eggs in the British Museum“. British Museum of Natural History.
“Petchary“. No date. Collins Dictionary.
Ridgway, Robert. 1907. “North and Middle America: A descriptive catalogue of the higher groups genera, species, and subspecies of birds known to occur in North America, from the Arctic lands to the isthmus of Panama, the West Indies and other islands of the Caribbean Sea, and the Galapagos archipelago“. Part IV. Washington: Government Printing Office.
“Sad Flycatcher“. No date. eBird.org.
“Sad Flycatcher – Myiarchus barbirostris“. No date. Oiseaux-birds.com.
Sclater, P.L. 1910. “Revised list of the birds of Jamaica“. The Institute of Jamaica.
“Tyrant Flycatchers (Tyrannidae).” 2019. Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia. Encyclopedia.com.