Gray Flycatcher Life History

Habitat

Habitat Open Woodlands

The Gray Flycatcher is largely a species of the high desert, Great Basin, and bordering foothills and mountains. Hot and dry on summer days, and often very cold at night, these environments are also often very windy—a challenging environment for a small flycatcher. The “sagebrush sea” is the local nickname for the shrubsteppe habitat that dominates the Great Basin, and Gray Flycatchers are relatively common there. Big sagebrush is the key plant species for Gray Flycatchers over much of this area, while three-tip sagebrush provides habitat for the small population found in Canada. Gray Flycatchers do nest on open sagebrush flats, but they prefer areas of tall, old-growth big sagebrush, which is often found along edges of valleys and washes rather than flats or ridgetops. In many parts of the species’ range, other hardy brushy plants like saltbush, antelope brush, buckbrush, manzanita, greasewood, and sumac also occur. In addition to sagebrush-dominated habitats, open habitats with evergreens such as Joshua tree, incense cedar, white fir, Douglas-fir, junipers (pinyon, one-seed, Rocky Mountain, and Utah), pines (pinyon, yellow, Jeffrey, ponderosa), or Garry oak provide nesting habitats. In some cases, these trees form an overstory at the edge of brushy habitat, where sagebrush is an understory plant. In most places, Gray Flycatchers inhabit areas above 4,000 feet in elevation, but some nest lower than 2,000 feet and some as high as 7,800 feet. Migrants can turn up in almost any habitat, but like other western Empidonax, they often seek food and shelter along streams (especially places with tamarisk, willow, or cottonwood), in chaparral, or in oases of green vegetation in deserts. Wintering birds in southern Arizona use mesquite bosques and streamside groves. Wintering birds in Mexico use similar habitats but also subtropical thorn forest and scrub.

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Food

Food Insects

Gray Flycatcher eat mostly insects. Like other Empidonax species, Grays hunt visually from a perch, often near the top of a shrub or lower limbs of a tree. The hunting perch is often a dead branch, from which they sally out quickly to snap an insect in the air, from the vegetation, or from the ground, sometimes hovering briefly before returning to the same perch. This species takes insects from the ground more often than other Empidonax. Among the few documented prey items are beetles, grasshoppers, wasps, moths, and ant lions. It is likely that they also consume small fruits, especially during the nonbreeding months in southern Arizona and Mexico.

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Nesting

Nest Placement

Nest Shrub

Nests are usually set in an evergreen tree or shrub, often a pine or juniper, usually near the trunk and 10 feet or less above the ground.

Nest Description

Females build a broad, coarse, almost flat cup of grass, sage, plant fibers, pine needles, and bark, often rimmed with juniper bark and lined with grass, wool, hair, feathers, and plant down. Nests measure on average about 5 inches across and 2.4 inches tall, with interior cup about 3 inches across and 2 inches deep.

Nesting Facts
Egg Description:

Creamy white.

Condition at Hatching:

Naked, helpless, eyes closed.

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Behavior

Behavior Flycatching

On returning from wintering grounds in Mexico and southern Arizona, male Gray Flycatchers establish territories by singing from favored perches around the territory and driving out rival males—and occasionally females and even males of other species, such as Dusky Flycatchers. Territories range in size from about 2.5 to 13 acres. Males usually sing from low perches (under 30 feet). This is lower, on average, than the very similar Dusky Flycatcher, with which Gray Flycatcher’s range overlaps. In conflict, males give ratting calls, raise the crown feathers, spread the tail, and open and snap the bill at each other. Females also defend territories against other females (and males), so scientists think that this species is most likely monogamous in its mating system. Courtship includes paired flights, with the male sometimes diving at the female, then perching with a flutter of wings and tail. Females build the nest, with occasional help from males. Once the female has laid eggs, both sexes become much less territorial, and males sing mostly in the early morning. Both parents feed the young. Migrants are typically silent (sometimes giving a soft whit) call, but wintering birds call and occasionally sing, suggesting that some may be territorial on the wintering grounds. In summer and fall, Gray Flycatchers have rather worn plumage and look mostly gray overall, with narrower, indistinct wingbars and eyering. Like Dusky Flycatchers, adults molt into fresh plumage after they reach wintering grounds (unlike adult Hammond’s Flycatchers, which molt before migrating and thus are in fresh plumage in fall).

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Conservation

Conservation Low Concern

According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, Gray Flycatcher populations increased by an estimated 2.4% per year between 1968 and 2014. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 2.9 million and rates the species a 9 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern. Habitat loss as a result of development, timber extraction, cattle operations, mining (oil shale and coal), gas drilling, oil drilling, and other industrial operations is probably the chief conservation concern for Gray Flycatchers. Because soils are poor and water scarce in the Great Basin, recovery of sagebrush and other habitats after destruction takes many decades. In some parts of the Great Basin, invasive cheatgrass has taken over areas formerly covered in sagebrush. Cheatgrass fuels intense brushfires and may prevent native vegetation such as sagebrush from returning.

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Credits

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2017). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015. Version 2.07.2017. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Schlossberg, Scott and John C. Sterling. (2013). Gray Flycatcher (Empidonax wrightii), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, USA.

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