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Black-tailed Gnatcatcher

Polioptila melanura ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: POLIOPTILIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher Photo

Black-tailed Gnatcatchers are tiny, high-strung songbirds of the arid southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico. They’re at home in parched arroyos and thorny scrublands featuring mesquite, creosote bush, ocotillo, and cactus, where they flit among thorns and leaves to grab insects and spiders. These dark-gray birds have a neat white eyering and flashes of white on the underside of the tail. Males sport a black cap in summer. They form lasting pairs and protect the same patch of scrub year-round, scolding intruders with a scratchy zhee-zhee-zhee.

Keys to identification Help

Chickadeelike
Chickadeelike
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    A tiny, slim songbird with a thin, straight bill, small body, and long tail.

  • Color Pattern

    Black-tailed Gnatcatchers are gray overall with a fine white eyering, and a black tail with white flashes on the underside. They are darker gray above, with paler gray underparts. Breeding males have a black cap.

  • Behavior

    Black-tailed Gnatcatchers are often heard before they are seen, because they favor the thickest parts of desert scrub. They forage for small insects among thorns and leaves, and will come out into the open to investigate or scold an intruder.

  • Habitat

    Look for Black-tailed Gnatcatchers in desert scrub, including washes densely lined with creosote and salt bush as well as areas studded with ocotillo, prickly pear, cholla, and mesquite.

Range Map Help

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Breeding male

    Black-tailed Gnatcatcher

    Breeding male
    • Tiny gray songbird of arid desert habitats
    • Breeding males show jet-black cap
    • Long, mostly black tail with thin, white edges
    • Short, slender bill
    • © Christopher Adler, San Diego, California, May 2012
  • Female

    Black-tailed Gnatcatcher

    Female
    • Small gray songbird with long black tail
    • Paler, dull white below
    • Female shows all gray head with no black markings
    • Mostly black tail with thin, white edges
    • © Joan Gellatly, Tucson, Arizona, March 2012
  • Nonbreeding male

    Black-tailed Gnatcatcher

    Nonbreeding male
    • Tiny, plump, and long-tailed
    • Black cap on males reduced in winter to small black smudges above the eyes
    • Mostly black tail with some white spots below
    • Slender, stubby black bill
    • © Joan Gellatly, Tucson, Arizona, January 2013
  • Breeding male

    Black-tailed Gnatcatcher

    Breeding male
    • Very small and mostly gray with long, black tail
    • Breeding males show full black cap
    • Paler, dull-white below
    • © Cameron Rognan, Mesquite, Nevada, May 2003

Similar Species

The threatened California Gnatcatcher has very little range overlap with Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. Where the two co-occur, California Gnatcatchers show much less white on the underside of the tail, and have a different voice, than Black-tailed Gnatcatchers. Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers are much more widespread and less connected to arid habitats than Black-tailed. Blue-gray are a lighter blue-gray overall, they always lack a black cap, and the tail is almost entirely white below, with prominent white outer tail feathers. The rare Black-capped Gnatcatcher of Mexico and extreme southeast Arizona also has much more white in the tail than Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. Gray Vireos are larger, chunkier, with shorter tails and shorter, much thicker bills.

Backyard Tips

Black-tailed Gnatcatchers don’t visit feeders or nest in boxes. The best way to attract them to your property is by hosting native trees and shrubs, such as creosote bush, salt bush, and mesquite. You can find more planting tips for your region at the Cornell Lab's citizen science project, YardMap.

Find This Bird

Any time you’re looking for a desert bird it’s a good idea to get out early in the morning while it’s still cool and bird activity is high. You can find Black-tailed Gnatcatchers by walking through dry desert scrub. Gnatcatchers may stay hidden in the denser parts of the vegetation, but they’ll tend to stay fairly low (around eye level) and call frequently. Listen for their scratchy zhee-zhee-zhee notes to help guide you to them. Also be on the lookout for other species whose habitat they share, such as Verdin, Bewick’s Wren, and Lucy’s Warbler.

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