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Willow Flycatcher

Empidonax traillii ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: TYRANNIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Willow Flycatchers are drab brownish-olive birds that are best known for their voice—a sneezy fitz-bew that emanates from wet willow thickets across North America. They’re one of the infamous Empidonax flycatchers, a name virtually synonymous with difficult ID. Look for them singing their distinctive song on top of willows and other shrubs in early summer just after they arrive from Central and South America where they spend the winter. Although they’re common across the United States, the Southwestern subspecies is federally endangered.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
5.1–6.7 in
13–17 cm
Wingspan
7.5–9.4 in
19–24 cm
Weight
0.4–0.6 oz
11–16 g
Relative Size
Larger than a Yellow Warbler, smaller than a Western or Eastern Wood-Pewee.
Other Names
  • Moucherolle des saules (French)
  • Mosquero saucero (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Flycatchers don’t learn their songs from their parents like many other birds. Instead flycatchers hatch knowing their songs. Scientists tested this by raising Willow Flycatchers in captivity while letting them listen to an Alder Flycatcher sing its free beer song. Despite hearing this song all day, Willow chicks grew up to sing their species’ own fitz-bew.
  • If a Brown-headed Cowbird lays its eggs in the nest of a Willow Flycatcher, the flycatcher may bury the cowbird eggs in the lining of the nest, or even build a completely new nest over the top of the first one to prevent the cowbird egg from hatching.
  • Bird watchers that encounter a silent flycatcher often call it a Traill's Flycatcher, because without a peep Alder and Willow Flycatchers are nearly impossible to separate in the field. In fact, before 1973, Alder and Willow Flycatchers were considered the same species, the Traill's Flycatcher, and the Willow still retains the scientific name Empidonax traillii.
  • When the two species are found together, the Willow Flycatcher will keep Alder Flycatchers out of its territory. But it expends more effort to keep out other Willow Flycatchers.
  • The oldest recorded Willow Flycatcher was a female, and at least 11 years old when she was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in California in 2010. She had been banded in the same state in 2001.

Habitat


Marsh

Willow Flycatchers, as their name implies, occupy areas with willows or other shrubs near standing or running water. But in the Pacific Northwest, they may also breed in drier scrubby areas. In winter, they use shrubby clearings, pastures, and woodland edges often near water. In Amazonia they occur on river islands with scrubby growth. In Mexico and northern Central America, they use scrubby fields and woodlands from sea level to about 8,000 feet elevation.

Food


Insects

Willow Flycatchers primarily eat insects that they catch in midair or pick from leaves while hovering. They eat bees, wasps, ants, beetles, damselflies, butterflies, moths, and flies. In the fall they occasionally eat blackberries, raspberries, currants, and dogwood berries.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
3–4 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
0.6–0.8 in
1.5–2 cm
Egg Width
0.5–0.6 in
1.3–1.4 cm
Incubation Period
12–15 days
Nestling Period
12–15 days
Egg Description
Creamy white with irregular brownish spots and blotches.
Condition at Hatching
Naked with bits of down on head and spine. Eyes closed.
Nest Description

The female weaves together grasses and strips of vegetation and anchors them to the shrub to secure the nest. She continues to add grasses and plant fibers until she forms a cup. She lines the cup with rootlets, horsehair, grass, or other fine material. It takes her about 5–10 days to build the first nest of the season, but less time for subsequent nests. If a nest fails, she takes the nest material from the failed nest and uses it to rebuild a new nest in a different location. The nest is about 3 inches across and 3 inches tall.

Nest Placement

Shrub

Females pick a spot within low shrubs and bushes, often near the outer edge. Most nests are in willow, but she also builds her nest in box elder, dogwood, hawthorn, bracken fern, and tamarisk. She places the nest about 2–5 feet above the ground.

Behavior


Flycatching

From atop a willow or other tall shrub, sounds of fitz-bew float through the air. Males sit upright, throw back their head, and flick their tail upward with each song. From these and other perches, they sally out to nab insects in midair or hover above leaves to pick off insects. If they feel threatened by an intruding Willow Flycatcher they often flick their tail, spread out their tail feathers, flick their wings, or give chase. They are mostly monogamous, but males sometimes mate with more than one female. During courtship pairs chase each other around while calling. Males and females frequently return to the same or nearby territories in successive seasons, and some even re-pair with same mate.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Willow Flycatchers are still common in most parts of their range, though their populations declined by 46% from 1970 to 2014, according to Partners in Flight. The estimated global breeding population is 9.4 million. Willow Flycatchers rate an 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, which means they are not on the Watch List. Although the species is still common, the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher is a federally listed endangered species. Its population is threatened by Brown-headed Cowbird parasitism, habitat loss and degradation, and overgrazing.

Credits

Range Map Help

Willow Flycatcher Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Long-distance migrant. Breeds in the United States and Canada and spends the winters in Mexico, Central America, and northern South America.

Backyard Tips

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

Find This Bird

The best time to go looking for a Willow Flycatcher is late May through June, shortly after they arrive on the breeding grounds and when singing is at its peak. Look for them in wet meadows, perching on top of or low at the edges of willows and other shrubs. Males tend to sit and sing from the same spot, so you'll have time to zero in on their location. It is possible to see them outside of the breeding season, but they can be much harder to identify if they are not singing. If you see a silent flycatcher during migration, the timing of your sighting can help narrow down your choices—Willow Flycatchers tend to arrive later in the spring than other Empidonax flycatchers.

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bird image Blue-winged Warbler by Brian Sullivan

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