Flycatcher

Last updated: November 1, 2022
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff

Most of the hundreds of varieties of flycatchers belong to the Tyrannidae and Muscicapidae families!

Flycatcher Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Chordata
Class
Aves
Order
Passeriformes
Family
Muscicapidae & Tyrannidae

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.


Flycatcher Facts

Prey
Insects, other invertebrates, small reptiles, amphibians, mammals and fish
Main Prey
Insects
Name Of Young
Chicks
Group Behavior
  • Pair
  • Flocks
Fun Fact
Most of the hundreds of varieties of flycatchers belong to the Tyrannidae and Muscicapidae families!
Biggest Threat
Habitat degradation, predators and pesticides
Incubation Period
On average, about 2 weeks
Age Of Fledgling
On average, between 2 and 3 weeks
Predators
Cats, owls, hawks, crows, blue jays, squirrels
Diet
Omnivore
Lifestyle
  • Diurnal/Nocturnal
Favorite Food
Insects
Location
Worldwide
Nesting Location
Usually in trees

Flycatcher Physical Characteristics

Color
  • Multi-colored
Skin Type
Feathers
Lifespan
As little as 1 year for some species, to as much as 10 years for others
Weight
0.15 to 3.5 ounces, depending on the species
Length
2.6 inches to 16 inches
Venomous
No

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“Most of the hundreds of varieties of flycatchers belong to the Tyrannidae and Muscicapidae families!”

Flycatcher Summary

Are you confused about exactly which birds qualify as flycatchers? You aren’t alone. Most flycatchers are part of two main families, the Muscicapidae, or Old-World flycatchers, and the Tyrannidae, or tyrant flycatchers. But there are flycatchers in several other families, and scientists are frequently shuffling species from one family or subfamily to another based on new research. With hundreds of known species identified as flycatchers, they are among the most numerous and diverse group of birds. Here, we will touch on a few key features of flycatchers and learn about some of the many species that share the distinction.

Incredible Flycatcher Facts

  • The Tyrannidae family of flycatchers is the largest family of birds.
  • The Old-World flycatchers of the Muscicapidae family are almost as numerous in species.
  • Many other families of birds include species known as flycatchers.
  • Flycatchers eat a variety of foods, including insects, seeds, berries, fruits, and even small animals.
  • Flycatchers have one rear-facing toe and three forward-facing toes.
  • Flycatchers come in a rainbow of colors and patterns, but most are somewhat drab.
  • Many flycatchers conceal hidden colors, especially on their crowns, that can be flashed in mating displays or as a means of defense.

Where to Find Flycatchers

Flycatchers are found throughout most of the world. Most Old World flycatchers are found in Europe, Asia and Africa. Tyrant flycatchers live in North and South America. Monarch flycatchers live across Australia, Africa, and southeast Asia. Silky-flycatchers are natives of Central America. Flycatchers migrate or live out their lives just about everywhere, from northern regions to the southern most parts of South America.

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Scientific Names of Flycatchers

Why would scientists move a bird out of a family it has been in for perhaps a hundred years or more? It is important to remember that scientific knowledge evolves as we make new discoveries. Most birds were originally classified by naturalists, zoologists, and ornithologists, using observable physical characteristics. As scientists began to understand DNA, molecular biologists such as Charles Sibley, joined the effort to correctly map the phylogeny of birds based on data that had never been available before.

Today, the majority of birds known as flycatchers fall into two families. The Old World flycatchers make up the family Muscicapidae. These include primarily birds from Europe, Africa, and Asia, with just a few exceptions. The tyrant flycatchers, or Tyrannidae family, live primarily in North and South America.

Some birds have recently been separated into different or even entirely new families based on DNA. These include members of the Tityridae family of South America, and the diverse flycatchers of the Monarchidae family, which range over Africa, Australia, and southeast Asia. The family Ptilogonatidae includes the Central American silky flycatchers. The Erythrocercidae and Stenostiridae families include flycatchers native to Africa, and the Petroicidae family includes a number of Australasian flycatchers now known to be unrelated to either the Monarchidae or Muscicapidae species.    

Flycatcher Appearance

With a category of birds that encompasses multiple families and hundreds of species, the appearance of flycatchers varies greatly. Generally, flycatchers are relatively small, perching birds. They typically have strong and pointed beaks. As Passeriformes, flycatchers have some distinguishing characteristics, including similar wing and leg musculature, and feet with one rear-facing and three forward-facing toes.

Flycatchers vary significantly in size. The short-tailed pygmy tyrant, Myiornis ecaudatus, is the smallest member of the Tyrannidae family. It weighs just 0.15 ounces and averages 2.6 inches in length. That’s smaller than a lot of hummingbirds! The largest member of the same family is the giant shrike-tyrant, Agriornis lividus, which reaches a length of 11 inches and a whopping 3.5 ounces. It only lives in far southwestern South America. The great kiskadee, Pitangus sulphuratus, habitats most of South America all the way to southern Texas.

The scissor-tailed flycatcher and the fork-tailed flycatcher are two of the longer flycatchers. The scissor-tailed flycatcher, Tyrannus forficatus, reaches approximately 15 inches with much of that length dedicated to its long tail feathers. It is outdone just slightly by the fork-tailed flycatcher, Tyrannus savana, which can reach 16 inches in length with its tail measuring up to three times the length of the rest of its body.

Coloration

Flycatchers feature a wide variety of colors. Most are neutral tones, including grays, browns and greens. But some are brightly colored, including the vermilion flycatcher, Pyrocephalus obscurus, which is red and black, and the pale blue flycatcher, Cyornis unicolor, of southeast Asia.

Some flycatchers are clearly sexually dimorphic, like the silky flycatcher, Phainopepla nitens, of the southwest United States and Mexico. Males of this species are completely black, whereas females are silvery gray. Other species, like the eastern kingbird, Tyrannus tyrannus, appear very similar except for slight differences in size.   

Birds that look like cardinals: Vermillion Flycatcher
The vermillion flycatcher has bright red plumage.

iStock.com/jocrebbin

Flycatcher Behavior

Some flycatchers migrate great distances while others stick close to one area their whole lives. They build a variety of types of nests and eat many types of foods. Some flycatchers live out in the open, while others prefer to live deep in the woods. Some have a whole repertoire of songs that they sing at different times of day and in different situations, while others barely sing at all. A number of flycatchers are extremely aggressive, toward other birds or even members of their own species. Others tend to avoid conflict and stay out of sight as much as they can. With so many different species recognized as flycatchers, their behavior is just about as variable as you can imagine. They do, for the most part, perch on limbs, wires, fences, or posts, and catch their prey, at least some of the time, in midair.

Diet

As the name would imply, most flycatchers eat insects. Flying insects make up a large part of their diet, but not all. Most will also capture insects and other invertebrates from the ground or other surfaces. Some of the larger flycatchers also prey on small animals like frogs, rodents, bats, and even fish. Many of the birds eat a variety of seeds, berries, and fruits, especially during the winter.

Flycatcher Reproduction

Courtship displays are common among flycatchers, which often utilize their agile flying skills to woo a mate. Many of the birds, such as the Amazonian royal flycatcher, appear somewhat drab until they flash a concealed and colorful crest. Many flycatchers are monogamous, and may mate for life or just a season, while others may mate outside the pair.

Predators

Of course, predators may vary based on the specific species and its habitat and range, but a few of the predators most adult flycatchers have in common include domestic cats and birds of prey such as owls and hawks. Birds like crows and blue jays often prey on flycatchers in the nest, and other common nest predators include squirrels and snakes.  

Lifespan of Flycatchers

The average lifespan of flycatchers is as variable as other traits. Some live as little as a single year on average, while others can live longer than a decade. Lifespan depends on where the species lives, what kinds of predators it faces, and whether other risk factors are at play. Flycatchers can easily be affected by habitat loss, especially if they migrate. They can also suffer if their habitat is very small and vulnerable to extreme weather or fires. Pesticides are a particular danger, as the chemicals that affect insects can also poison the birds that eat them. Most flycatchers have relatively stable populations, but some, such as the southwestern willow flycatcher, are endangered.   

  • Amazonian Royal Flycatcher – This South American member of the Tityridae family has an ornate crest that it uses during mating displays.
  • Eastern Kingbird – This member of the Tyrannidae family migrates from northwestern Canada to the middle of South America. It is a fierce fighter once called the “butcher king.”
  • Nightingale – This member of the Muscicapidae family is found in Europe and Asia and winters in sub-Saharan Africa. The male has one of the most complex songs of all the birds in the world.

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About the Author

Tavia discovered she had a gift for teaching when she was 21 years old. Having recently changed her major from engineering to wildlife biology, she was thrilled to take on an internship with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She began her work excited about going into the field and saving endangered species, but soon realized she could make the biggest difference by helping to educate young people about animals, the environment and science in general. Tavia loves all animals, especially the ones that need our help the most. Over the years, she has cared for many pets, including snakes, toads, a tarantula, tree frogs, a salamander, hissing cockroaches, mice, donkeys, calves, horses, and a number of cats and dogs, but dogs are definitely her favorite! She believes that together, we can make our world a better place.

Flycatcher FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What do flycatchers look like?

Flycatchers vary greatly in appearance. Most are small birds, typically with sharp beaks. As Passeriformes, they all have one rear-facing toe and three forward-facing toes on each foot, and they share similar wing and leg musculature. Other than that, they come in a wide variety of colors and patterns, some with features like extra long tails or fancy crests.

How many varieties of flycatchers exist?

There are hundreds of different flycatcher species. The Tyrannidae family of flycatchers is the largest of the bird families, and the Muscicapidae flycatchers, known as the Old World flycatchers are nearly as numerous. There are also a number of other families that include birds known as flycatchers.

When do flycatchers leave the nest?

The amount of time young flycatchers spend in the nest varies from species to species. Many fledge after as little as a couple of weeks. Some stay in the nest three weeks or more.

What makes flycatchers special?

Most of the hundreds of species of flycatchers belong to two of the largest bird families: Tyrannidae and Muscicapidae. However, many other flycatchers have been reassigned to other families or even to new families of their very own as new DNA evidence helps to clarify their phylogeny.

Where do flycatchers live?

Flycatchers live almost all around the world. The Old World flycatchers live mostly in Europe, Africa and Asia, while the tyrant flycatchers live mainly in North and South America. Other families live in Central America, Australia, and in other parts of the world. Flycatchers can live in a wide variety of habitats, from open grasslands and deserts to scrublands and dense forests.

Do flycatchers migrate?

Some species of flycatchers migrate. Others stick close to one area throughout their lives. Those that migrate may travel thousands of miles or may go much shorter distances.

What do flycatchers eat?

Flycatchers definitely eat insects, but depending on the species they may also eat a variety of other invertebrates, small reptiles, mammals, and fish. They typically eat seeds, berries and fruits as well, and some species will even eat things like dog food if given the opportunity.

How long do flycatchers live?

The lifespan of flycatchers ranges from as little as one year to 10 years or more. Much depends on the species and the dangers they face, such as predators, pesticides, habitat degradation, severe weather or fires.

What is the largest flycatcher?

The largest known flycatcher is the giant shrike-tyrant, Agriornis lividus, which reaches a length of 11 inches and 3.5 ounces. The longest flycatchers are the scissor-tailed flycatcher, Tyrannus forficatus, and the fork-tailed flycatcher, Tyrannus savana, which can reach lengths of 15 to 16 inches with their impressive tail feathers, but each weighs significantly less than the giant shrike-tyrant.

What is the smallest flycatcher?

The smallest flycatcher is the short-tailed pygmy tyrant, Myiornis ecaudatus. It weighs just 0.15 ounces and averages 2.6 inches in length. That’s smaller than a lot of hummingbirds.

Are flycatchers rare?

Many species have stable populations and would be considered species of least concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. However, some flycatchers are threatened or endangered.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

Sources
  1. New Scientist, Available here: https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn14212-bird-evolutionary-tree-given-a-shake-by-dna-study/
  2. P Dodds, Available here: https://pdodds.w3.uvm.edu/files/papers/others/1996/edwards1996a.pdf
  3. NPS.gov, Available here: https://www.nps.gov/articles/southwestern-willow-flycatcher.htm

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