Tucson Audubon, Meet Your Mascot
By Bob Bowers
Sixty-three years ago, when twelve friends met to organize what was to become the Tucson Audubon Society,choosing a bird to represent the organization might have been on the agenda. We don’t know for certain, since little information about those early days is readily available. If not that night, though, it wasn’t long before a mascot/logo, iconic bird, was chosen to symbolize the group, its newsletter and mission; the strikingly beautiful Vermilion Flycatcher.
In researching this article, I tried unsuccessfully to discover the story behind that selection. I wondered if the choice had been unanimous, or if it had been hotly contested, maybe between the flycatcher and the state bird, the Cactus Wren. As we all know, birders are rarely quick to agree on anything. However, I wasn’t able to dig up any dirt, and finally agreed with those old-timers I did reach that the choice was a good one, regardless. Selecting a single bird from the 600 plus species documented in Arizona might seem a daunting task, but the Vermilion Flycatcher was an excellent choice for lots of reasons.
First, naturally, is its range. It’s not U.S. exclusive to southeast Arizona, like the Rufous-winged Sparrow, but you can count its other states on one hand, so it’s not seen in 90 percent of the country. Besides, as a magazine title, ‘The Rufous-winged Sparrow’ lacks the zing of ‘The Vermilion Flycatcher’. Even though many of our Vermilion Flycatchers winter in Mexico, many others are year-round residents. This twelve-month presence, coupled with the flycatcher’s adaptability to urbanization (they’re commonly found near the water features of parks and golf courses) also adds weight to its selection. In addition, the bird has exotic, neotropic credentials. Common in Mexico, you can also find our mascot in Central America and as far south as the tip of Argentina. Surprisingly, the Vermilion Flycatcher is even found in the Galapagos Islands, only one of a half-dozen species resident both in the U.S. and the archipelago. There is even a colorless, melanistic subspecies found in and around Lima, Peru.
However, if our bird were the melanistic version, we might be reading The Rufous-winged Sparrow after all, since there is little doubt that the flycatcher’s selection had much to do with the male’s striking color. I remember vividly my first encounter with the Vermilion Flycatcher. It was on the San Pedro River in spring, and I caught my breath as I watched what appeared to be an exotic, brilliantly red butterfly flutter above the trees and spiral back down to a perch, repeating this unique courtship display again and again. Some other tyrant flycatchers also have dramatic courtship displays, but none are as stunning as this. However, courtshipis but one of several characteristics that differentiate the Vermilion from other North American flycatchers. While all but one other of our flycatcher females and males look alike, the Vermilion sexes differ markedly. Females lack the male’s brilliant color, but are beautiful nonetheless, with streaked white breast colors gradually darkening to salmon undertail coverts. Additionally, immature Vermilion Flycatchers stand apart from adults, again unlike almost all of our other flycatchers. Young males are mottled, while first year females have yellow bellies, rather than pink.
The eggs of Vermilion Flycatchers are unique, as well. Unlike the plain-colored eggs of other flycatchers, those of the Vermilion are special, wreathed in patterns of soft olive, brown and lavender. Discovering a well-camouflaged nest with three of these is like finding a cache of Easter eggs.
Many things make this bird appropriately special as our mascot, but perhaps none so much as the color of the male. In the first place, ‘vermilion’ suggests something extra, raising the ante on ‘red’, and ornithologists competed poetically to name the bird. The scientific name is Pyrocephalus rubinus, or ‘ruby firehead’, and the Spanish name, Mosquero cardinal (Cardinal-colored fly-killer), evolved from the more colorful Brasita de fuego (little red-hot coal of fire). Author Herbert Brandt’s descriptions epitomize poetic reference, as found in his Arizona and Its Bird Life. Brandt’s five-pound classic was published just two years after that first meeting of the fledgling Tucson Audubon Society, and might well have influenced their choice of mascot. In those days, the Vermilion Flycatcher was also known as the Firebird, and it was obviously one of Brandt’s favorites. His book mentions the flycatcher on 27 pages, and his eloquent descriptions range from crimson, fiery, rich ruby, blazing comet, brilliant fire jewel, splendor, gem, gorgeous flame, blazing livery to ‘glowing like firebrands against the flawless blue of the sky.’ Could those early founders have picked a better mascot? I don’t think so.
Bob Bowers is a birder and freelance writer specializing in nature and travel articles. He writes a monthly birding column for an Arizona newspaper, and lives with his wife, Prudy, in SaddleBrooke, in northwest Tucson. He writes a birding and travel blog, www.birdingthebrooke.com, and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org .