Great Kiskadee

Pitangus sulphuratus

Last updated: November 1, 2022
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
© Wilfred Marissen/Shutterstock.com

The great kiskadee is a highly adaptable predator that can live in almost any habitat within its range and can hunt in the air, on the ground and in the water.

Great Kiskadee Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Chordata
Class
Aves
Order
Passeriformes
Family
Tyrannidae
Genus
Pitangus
Scientific Name
Pitangus sulphuratus

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Great Kiskadee Conservation Status


Great Kiskadee Facts

Prey
Insects, lizards, mice, birds, frogs, fish, bats
Main Prey
Insects
Group Behavior
  • Pair
Fun Fact
The great kiskadee is a highly adaptable predator that can live in almost any habitat within its range and can hunt in the air, on the ground and in the water.
Estimated Population Size
50,000,000 - 100,000,000
Biggest Threat
Possibly pollution
Most Distinctive Feature
Yellow belly
Distinctive Feature
Black and white striped head; reddish-brown back, tail and wings; short and sturdy black bill; black legs and feet
Other Name(s)
Great kiskadee
Temperament
Territorial and aggressive
Wingspan
16 inches
Incubation Period
13 - 15 days
Age Of Fledgling
17 -18 days
Habitat
Woodlands, shrublands, open areas, urban areas, aricultural regions, near wetlands or waterways
Predators
Coral snake, other snakes, lizards, mammals
Diet
Omnivore
Lifestyle
  • Pair
Favorite Food
Insects
Common Name
Kiskadee, Great kiskadee
Location
South America, Central America, parts of Mexico, far southern Texas
Nesting Location
In trees, 3 to 10 meters up

Great Kiskadee Physical Characteristics

Color
  • Brown
  • Yellow
  • Black
  • White
Skin Type
Feathers
Lifespan
At least 6 years, 11 months
Weight
1.8 to 2.5 ounces
Length
9.8 to 11 inches
Venomous
No
Aggression
High

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The great kiskadee is a highly adaptable predator that can live almost anywhere!

The great kiskadee is a bright and colorful bird recognized by its yellow belly, reddish-brown back, and black and white striped head. The kiskadee was named because of its unique call. Observers describe it as sounding a lot like kis-ka-dee, or bee-tee-wee. This flycatcher, one of the largest in the Tyrannidae family, is present across an expanding range that covers most of South and Central America, parts of Mexico and the far southern portion of Texas. It is also known as the bem-te-vi, benteveo or bienteveo through much of its Portuguese and Spanish speaking range.

Incredible Great Kiskadee Facts

  • The scientific name of the great kiskadee, Pitangus sulphuratus, refers to its bright yellow belly which is the color of sulfur.  
  • This bird is an amazingly adept hunter in the air, on the water and over the ground.
  • The great kiskadee differs from the lesser kiskadee by its short, sturdy bill, its stocky appearance, and its distinct kis-ka-dee call.
  • Male and female great kiskadees look alike.
  • These birds are aggressive defenders of their territory, taking on other birds including raptors in midair fights.
  • The main predator of the great kiskadee is the coral snake.

Where to Find Great Kiskadees

Great kiskadees are incredibly adaptive birds. They are opportunistic omnivores that nest in all sorts of habitats, from woodlands and scrublands to open grasslands, agricultural regions and even highly urban areas. They live throughout much of South America, Central America, parts of Mexico and into the United States in far southern Texas. Great kiskadees also often live near wetlands and waterways, as they are just as adept at catching prey from the water as they are in the air.

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Great Kiskadee Scientific Name

The great kiskadee’s scientific name is Pitangus sulphuratus. Pitangus comes from the language of the indigenous Tupi of Brazil and refers to flycatcher. Sulphuratus refers to the bright yellow sulfur-like color of the bird’s underside and concealed crown feathers.

P. sulphuratus is the only species in the genus, which was assigned by the British naturalist, William Swainson, in 1827. Currently, a total of ten subspecies of P. sulphuratus exist. French zoologist M. J. Brisson originally described the species in 1760.

The lesser kiskadee, Pitangus lictor, was also originally part of the Pitangus genus. It is very similar in appearance to the greater kiskadee, with notable exceptions. It has a much longer and thinner bill and is a smaller and more slender bird overall. In 1984, the much less common lesser kiskadee was moved to the genus Philohydor, meaning water loving. It was renamed Philohydor lictor, although it is still referred to as Pitangus lictor in some sources.

Great Kiskadee Appearance

Two Great Kiskadee
These birds are aggressive defenders of their territory, taking on other birds including raptors in midair fights.

©Wirestock Creators/Shutterstock.com

The great kiskadee is a bright and colorful bird. It was named for its most prominent feature, its bright yellow belly the color of sulfur. Its head is striped in black and white, with a white chin, thick black eye line, thick white superciliary line, and black on its crown. Those crown feathers hide a secret, though. Those black crown feathers conceal a bright yellow crest. The great kiskadee raises the yellow feathers up and to the sides when it is agitated.

This bird has rich, reddish brown or rufous colored feathers on its back, wings, and tail. Its feet are shiny and black, and its black beak is short and stout. The bird has been described as blocky or stout. It has a large head and a thick neck, and it is one of the largest of the Tyrannidae family of flycatchers. Both males and females of the species look similar,  

Great Kiskadee Behavior

The great kiskadee is not a migratory bird. It is a permanent resident throughout its range and is known to fight aggressively to maintain its territory. Both males and females defend their nests, and although the male does not incubate the eggs or brood the nestlings, he is known to stay close by and actively defend against predators when the female is on the nest.

This bird is notably adaptable, making its home in a wide variety of habitats. It does not seem to shy away from living in urban areas near human populations. On the contrary, it has been known to take advantage of its proximity to people, finding new food sources and places to build its nests.  

Pairs of great kiskadees take several days to make their nest, which they build from dried grasses and other found fibers. They never reuse an old nest, but they may tear it apart for building materials. They are just as likely to tear apart the nests of other birds in or around their territory, too.  

Diet

Great kiskadees are agile hunters, both in the air, on the ground and over the water. As flycatchers, their primary prey is, of course, insects. They catch flying insects of all types in mid-air and can also catch other birds and even bats on the wing. They prey on lizards, mice and terrestrial insects and other invertebrates. Great kiskadees also catch frogs and fish straight from the water like kingfishers. They have even been seen snatching prey directly from other birds, such as the little blue heron.

These omnivorous birds are opportunistic feeders. They dine on berries, fruits and seeds, sometimes directly from people’s gardens. The birds also sometimes steal food from dogs’ bowls. They steal eggs out of other birds’ nests, including those of other kiskadees. Basically, if they can eat it, they probably will.  

Great Kiskadee Reproduction

Great kiskadees form monogamous pairs. They build their nests together, usually about 3 to 10 meters up in trees. They make their dome-shaped nests of dried grass and other found fibers, with a side entrance. Once the nest is complete, the female lays between 2 to 5 eggs and incubates them on her own. The male stays nearby, aggressively guarding the nest and defending the territory throughout the incubation and brooding periods.

The great kiskadee has an average of 1 to 2 broods per year. Incubation takes between 13 to 15 days, and the juveniles fledge about 17 to 18 days later. Both parents tend to the nestlings, feeding them mostly insects and small frogs.

Predators

The coral snake is the most common predator of the great kiskadee. Interestingly, researchers found that the bird recognizes and avoids the color patterns of the coral snake without having encountered the snakes before. Mammalian predators, also, including primates like the marmoset, prey on kiskadees at the nest. So do other types of snakes and lizards. Hawks or owls may also make attempts on the nest. However, the great kiskadee is a formidable opponent in the air with its high maneuverability and aggressive nature.

Lifespan of the Great Kiskadee

Researchers know little about the specifics of the great kiskadee life cycle after fledglings leave the nest. The longest living specimen on record, though, lived at least 6 years, 11 months. With relatively few predators and an increasing population and range, the threats to great kiskadees are presumably low. One known threat, however, is pollution. A 2009 study in Argentina found that great kiskadees living around a lake with high levels of heavy metal pollution had toxic levels of lead and cadmium in their organs. As fish-eating predators that live near waterways, kiskadees would likely be vulnerable to any kind of pollutant that can accumulate in bodily tissues.

A Cautionary Tale

Scientists introduced the great kiskadee on the island of Bermuda in 1957. Its purpose was reducing the population of another introduced species, the anole lizard. Unfortunately, the experiment was a disaster. The highly adaptable kiskadee found a preference for other available food sources, including the eggs of native songbirds and vulnerable insect populations. The timing of the great kiskadee’s introduction on the island coincided with the extinction of the Bermuda cicada in the 1950s. Some believe predation by this bird may have been a contributing factor.

Similar Animals

  • Great crested flycatcher – This yellow-bellied member of the Tyrannidae family has a gray head, and should not be mistaken with the black and white striped head of the great kiskadee.
  • Vermilion flycatcher – This red and black flycatcher lives in both North and South America and is one of the smaller flycatchers.
  • Lesser Kiskadee – Although the lesser kiskadee was once in the same genus as the great kiskadee, it was reclassified in 1984. It looks very similar, with the exception of its long, narrow bill and more slender body.

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About the Author

Tavia discovered she had a gift for teaching when she was 21 years old. Having recently changed her major from engineering to wildlife biology, she was thrilled to take on an internship with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She began her work excited about going into the field and saving endangered species, but soon realized she could make the biggest difference by helping to educate young people about animals, the environment and science in general. Tavia loves all animals, especially the ones that need our help the most. Over the years, she has cared for many pets, including snakes, toads, a tarantula, tree frogs, a salamander, hissing cockroaches, mice, donkeys, calves, horses, and a number of cats and dogs, but dogs are definitely her favorite! She believes that together, we can make our world a better place.

Great Kiskadee FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What does the great kiskadee look like?

The great kiskadee has a bright yellow belly with reddish-brown back, wings and tail. Its head is striped in black and white, with black feathers on the crown concealing a bright yellow crest that it can raise when agitated. The bird’s feet are black, as is its short, sturdy bill. Its head and neck are large, and it has a stout appearance overall.

How many varieties of kiskadees exist?

The great kiskadee, Pitangus sulphuratus, is the only species in the Pitangus genus since 1984, when the lesser kiskadee, Philohydor lictor, was reclassified as the sole member of the Philohydor genus. There are 10 subspecies of great kiskadees and two subspecies of lesser kiskadees.

What makes the great kiskadee special?

The great kiskadee is a highly adaptable predator that can live in almost any habitat within its range and can hunt in the air, on the ground and in the water.

Where do great kiskadees live?

The great kiskadee has a range that includes most of South America, Central America, parts of Mexico and the far southern portion of Texas. It is a permanent resident throughout its range. Its habitat includes woodlands, shrublands, open areas, agricultural regions, and urban areas, usually within relatively close proximity to wetlands or other waterways.

What do great kiskadees eat?

Great kiskadees eat flying insects, other birds and bats that they catch in midair. They eat frogs and fish that they catch in the water, and they eat other insects and invertebrates they find on the ground. They also prey on the eggs and nestlings of other birds. As omnivores, they are known to eat berries, fruits and seeds, and they have even been seen eating from dogs’ bowls.

How long do great kiskadees live?

The oldest recorded tagged specimen lived at least 6 years, 11 months.

Where do great kiskadees nest?

Great kiskadees nest in trees or on artificial structures, about 3 to 10 meters aboveground. Their nests are dome shaped and made of dried grass.

Are great kiskadees monogamous?

Great kiskadees are monogamous. The pairs of birds raise 1 to 2 broods each year and are highly territorial.

Are great kiskadees aggressive?

Great kiskadees are very aggressive. They will fight other birds, including other kiskadees and even large raptors, to defend their territory and their nest. They have been known to steal prey right from the bills of other birds, such as little blue herons. They will destroy the nests of other birds and chase them away from their territory, and will even prey on other birds’ eggs and nestlings.

What is the great kiskadee’s main predator?

The great kiskadee’s main predator is the coral snake. Other snakes, lizards and mammals also prey on this bird, primarily juveniles or eggs in the nest.

Are great kiskadees rare?

Great kiskadees are not rare. They are a species of least concern on the IUCN Red List, with a population of between 50 and 100 million. These birds have an extremely large and expanding range and are thought to be increasing in number.

How to say Great Kiskadee in ...
Portuguese
Bentevi
Portuguese
Bem-te-vi
Spanish
Bienteveo
Spanish
Benteveo
French
Kiskidi
Italian
Kiskadi

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Sources
  1. Wiley Online Library / Journal of Field Ornithology / Erich Fischer,Roberto L. Munin,José M. Longo,Wagner Fischer,Paulo R. De Souza, Available here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1557-9263.2009.00256.x
  2. Bio One Complete / Waterbirds / Emmanuel Moralez-Silva, Emygdio L. A. Monteiro-Filho, Available here: https://doi.org/10.1675/1524-4695-31.4.666
  3. Publishing / Journal of Environmental Monitoring / Fabricio Damián Cid,abc Claudia Gatica-Sosa, Rosa Isabel Antónd and Enrique Caviedes-Vidal, Available here: https://pubs.rsc.org/en/Content/ArticleLanding/2009/EM/b906227k

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