Living Bird Magazine
Black-tailed GnatcatcherPolioptila melanura
- ORDER: Passeriformes
- FAMILY: Polioptilidae
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.More ID Info
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.
- Perlita Colinegra (Spanish)
- Gobemoucheron à queue noire (French)
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.
- Cool Facts
- The Black-tailed Gnatcatcher is one of the smallest songbirds of North America, weighing about as much as one nickel.
- Black-tailed Gnatcatchers typically occur in areas with less than 8 inches of rainfall per year, and may build nests several miles away from the nearest water source. They can get most of the water they need from the insects they eat.
- Some Black-tailed Gnatcatchers may stick with one mate for life, a rare strategy among songbirds. This may be a better option to them since they do not migrate, but rather spend the whole year in one small area.
- Biologists use Black-tailed Gnatcatchers as an indicator of the health of an ecosystem, since these birds cannot survive on land dominated by human structures or non-native vegetation.