Living Bird Magazine
Willow FlycatcherEmpidonax traillii
- ORDER: Passeriformes
- FAMILY: Tyrannidae
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.More ID Info
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.
- Mosquero Saucero (Spanish)
- Moucherolle des saules (French)
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.
- Cool Facts
- Flycatchers don’t learn their songs from their parents, as many other birds do. 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 only 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.