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Willow Flycatcher Life History


MarshesWillow 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.Back to top


InsectsWillow 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. Back to top


Nest Placement

ShrubFemales 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.

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.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:3-5 eggs
Egg Description:Creamy white with irregular brownish spots and blotches.
Condition at Hatching:Naked with bits of down on head and spine. Eyes closed.
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FlycatchingFrom 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. Back to top


Low Concern

Willow Flycatchers are still common in most parts of their range though their populations declined by approximately 25% from 1966 to 2019, according to the American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 8.1 million and rates the species 10 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of relatively low conservation concern (this estimate includes the Alder Flycatcher, once considered to be the same species). Although the species is 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.

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Dunne, P. (2006). Pete Dunne's essential field guide companion. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, USA.

Karlson, Kevin and D Rosselet. (2015). Birding by Impression. Living Bird 25:34-42.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2019). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2019. Version 2.07.2019. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sedgwick, James A. (2000). Willow Flycatcher (Empidonax traillii), 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, NY, USA.

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