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Least Flycatcher

Empidonax minimus ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: TYRANNIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Least Flycatchers are one of the grayish olive flycatchers in the often confusing Empidonax group, but they're one of the easier ones to identify. Their small size, bold white eyering, and distinctive chebec song set them apart. During the summer, they congregate in clusters in deciduous forests and sing incessantly. They may be little, but they don't let other birds push them around, sometimes chasing species as large as Blue Jays. Though they are common, they lost more than half of their population since 1970.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
4.7–5.5 in
12–14 cm
Wingspan
7.9 in
20 cm
Weight
0.3–0.5 oz
8–13 g
Relative Size
Larger than a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, smaller than an Eastern Wood-Pewee.
Other Names
  • Moucherolle tchébec (French)
  • Mosquerito mínimo, Tontín chebec (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Least Flycatchers don't waste any time on the breeding grounds. It takes them about 58 days to find a mate, build a nest, lay eggs, and raise their young from nestlings to independence, and they only spend about 64 days in their summer homes. That doesn’t leave them much free time.
  • Many passerines grow new feathers on the breeding grounds after nesting, but some flycatchers wait until they get to their wintering grounds. Least Flycatchers wait until they arrive in Mexico and Central America in mid-August through early September to start growing new feathers.
  • Least Flycatchers travel between 60 and 72 miles per day to reach their wintering grounds, a journey that takes them about 25 days.
  • One Least Flycatcher nest was found to have used dragonfly wings as nest lining.
  • The oldest recorded Least Flycatcher was at least 8 years old when it was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in Virginia in 1985. It had been banded in the same state in 1977.

Habitat


Forest

During the breeding season, Least Flycatchers are most common in semiopen deciduous and mixed forests of all ages, but sometimes they use shrubby fields and forest edges. In winter, they use woodland edges, forested ravines, shrubby areas, and pasture edges in Central America, typically below 3,200 feet elevation along the Pacific coast or below 5,000 feet along the Caribbean slope. In Mexico they also use tropical evergreen forest.

Food


Insects

Insects make up the majority of the Least Flycatcher's diet. They catch ants, beetles, flies, butterflies, and leafhoppers in midair or pick them off vegetation generally less than 50 feet above the ground. Occasionally they also eat black elderberry, blackberries, and grass seeds.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
3–5 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
0.6–0.7 in
1.5–1.8 cm
Egg Width
0.5–0.6 in
1.2–1.4 cm
Incubation Period
12–15 days
Nestling Period
12–17 days
Egg Description
Creamy white, unmarked.
Condition at Hatching
Helpless, with only small patches of down.
Nest Description

Female Least Flycatchers weave together strips of bark, grasses, plant fibers, and spiderwebs to form a compact cup nest. They line the nest with fine grasses, animal hair, feathers, and downy plant material. Sometimes they steal bits of nesting material from nests of other species nearby. It takes them about 5–7 days to build a nest that is around 2.5 inches wide and 2 inches tall.

Nest Placement

Tree

Males and females choose where to put the nest shortly after they pair. They pick a deciduous tree with an upright fork in the lower to middle canopy anywhere from 2–50 feet above the ground.

Behavior


Flycatching

Least Flycatchers may be small, but they are quick to quarrel with any bird, no matter their size, that enters their territory. They frequently chase American Redstarts, Brown-headed Cowbirds, and even Blue Jays, which are more than twice their size, out of their territory. Males also fluff up their feathers, extend their wings, and flick their tails from a crouched position to threatened an intruder. On the breeding grounds, they nest in clusters, creating a flycatcher neighborhood with anywhere from 2 to 30 territories per cluster. Males in the best condition often get the center territory and they are the first ones in the neighborhood to pair. Males and females perform a perch-hopping dance during courtship, followed by silent flights through the territory and, eventually, mating. Males in the center of the neighborhood venture toward the border to mate with additional females, a behavior known as extra-pair mating. Females also seek extra-pair matings from nearby males, and their desire to seek more mates may be one reason why they nest in clusters. Nests in the center of the neighborhood tend to have a lower risk of nest predation, which could be another reason why they nest in clusters. Predators that enter a neighborhood are met with alarm calls that may persuade them to leave the area. On the wintering grounds, males and females defend separate territories with songs and calls.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Least Flycatchers are common across the East, but their populations have declined sharply, by about 53% between 1970 and 2014, according to Partners in Flight. The estimated global breeding population is 33 million. Though they are common, they are a Common Bird in Steep Decline and have a Continental Concern Score of 11 out of 20. If current rates of decline continue, Least Flycatchers will lose another half of their remaining population within the next 42 years, according to Partners in Flight estimates. Least Flycatchers appear sensitive to forest disturbances that create openings in the forest or alter the understory such as logging and excessive deer browsing.

Credits

Range Map Help

Least Flycatcher Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Long-distance migrant.

Backyard Tips

Least Flycatchers aren't your typical backyard breeder, but they may stop by your yard during migration. Learn how to provide migration habitat for these and other migrants by visiting Habitat Network.

Learn more about creating a forest patch for Least Flycatchers and other birds at Habitat Network.

Find This Bird

Least Flycatchers make their presence known with their incessant chebecs during the breeding season. To find them, take a walk in a deciduous forest in the northern U.S. and Canada, and listen for their very short 2-note song. Don't be alarmed if you don't hear them right away; they nest in clusters so there might be stretches of forest without any Least Flycatchers. But once you come across a cluster, there will likely be several about. They generally catch insects from branches in the middle to upper levels of the forest and frequently change perches, so look up for quick movements. On migration, these flycatchers may be silent and hard to tell from other Empidonax—look for their small size and bold eyering.

You Might Also Like

Confusing Flycatchers? Use Migration Timing To Your Advantage, eBird, April 20, 2011.

When Does A Songbird Migrate? Depends On What It Eats, All About Birds, October 15, 2015.

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