Willow Flycatcher

Empidonax traillii

Last updated: February 2, 2023
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
© D and D Photo Sudbury/Shutterstock.com

These birds live in the understory and are named for their propensity for flitting between willows and shrubs.


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Willow Flycatcher Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Chordata
Class
Aves
Order
Passeriformes
Family
Tyrannidae
Genus
Empidonax
Scientific Name
Empidonax traillii

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Willow Flycatcher Conservation Status

Willow Flycatcher Locations

Willow Flycatcher Locations

Willow Flycatcher Facts

Prey
Insects and spiders
Main Prey
bees, wasps, ants, flies, beetles, and caterpillars
Name Of Young
chicks
Group Behavior
  • Pair
Fun Fact
These birds live in the understory and are named for their propensity for flitting between willows and shrubs.
Estimated Population Size
8.1 million
Biggest Threat
Habitat loss and degradation
Most Distinctive Feature
Wheezy song
Distinctive Feature
Long tails and straight, broad bills
Wingspan
7.5 to 9.4 inches
Age Of Fledgling
12 to 14 days
Habitat
wet meadows, woodland edges, pastures
Predators
snakes, voles, ravens, hawks, owls, and weasels.
Diet
Insectivore
Lifestyle
  • Diurnal
Type
Bird
Common Name
Willow flycatcher
Number Of Species
4
Location
North America, South America
Nesting Location
Willow
Migratory
1

Willow Flycatcher Physical Characteristics

Color
  • Brown
  • Yellow
  • White
  • Olive
Skin Type
Feathers
Lifespan
2 to 3 years on average
Weight
0.4 to 0.6 ounces
Length
5.2 to 6 inches

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Their songs are hoarse and last around one second. It may sound like someone zipping up a coat or a wheezy “fitz-bew.”

Summary

The willow flycatcher (Empidonax traillii) is a small and slender, insect-eating passerine. They are native to North and South America, where they inhabit wet meadows filled with willows and other shrubs near water. They spend their days perched in bushes, sallying out to catch insects mid-air or hovering over leaves. This bird sings a tune perfectly unique to its species and even varies based on subspecies. Discover everything there is to know about the willow flycatcher, including where they live, what they eat, and how they behave.

Willow Flycatcher Amazing Facts

  • Unlike most birds that learn their songs from their parents, willow flycatchers hatch already knowing their unique tune.
  • The alder flycatcher and willow flycatcher are almost impossible to tell apart. You can only identify them by their song and range.
  • Willow flycatchers arrive at the breeding grounds later in spring than most flycatcher species.
  • They can travel up to 5,000 miles between their wintering and breeding grounds.

Where To Find the Willow Flycatcher

Willow flycatchers live in willows or other shrubs near water. But their exact habitat varies by subspecies. Those in the Northwest may utilize drier scrubby areas, while in the Southwest, you can find them in river islands and scrubby fields. They are more lenient with their wintering grounds and can inhabit pastures, woodland edges, and clearings. They are most abundant on their breeding grounds from late May to June, where they are likely to be perched on willows singing their unique tune. 

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Willow Flycatcher Nest

Females pick a nesting spot in a deciduous shrub or tree, typically a willow, and place it two to five feet above the earth in a fork of a branch. The female weaves an open cup using grass, bark strips, and plant fiber, and lines the insides with horsehair, grass, plant down, and other soft material. The nest is three inches across and three inches tall, taking around five to ten days to complete during the first breeding season. This species returns to the same nesting site yearly and uses the nest from the previous year to build another.

Scientific Name

Willow flycatchers (Empidonax traillii) belong to the Tyrannidae family, which encompasses the tyrant flycatchers, covering 400 species of New World passerines. The Empidonax genus is a group of small, insect-eating flycatchers. The name in Ancient Green means “gnat master.” 

There are four recognized subspecies of willow flycatcher separated by location:



  • E. t. brewsteri – Pacific Slope
  • E.t. adastus – Great Basin/Northern Rockies
  • E. t. extimus – Southwest
  • E. t. Traillii – East Coast to the Western Rockies

Size, Appearance, and Behavior

The willow flycatcher is small and slender, weighing 0.4 to 0.6 ounces and measuring 5.2 to 6 inches long, with a 7.5 to 9.4-inch wingspan. Despite their relatively tiny size, they are actually one of the largest in their genus. They have fairly long wings and a long, thin tail, and they have straight, broad bills for catching insects. Males and females appear very similar in appearance. They are brown olive above and white below with a slight yellow wash. Their wings are darker with white and buff streakings. This species also has a very thin white eyering.

These birds live in the understory and are named for their propensity for flitting between willows and shrubs. They perch on the edge of willows and fly out to catch their prey. 

The flycatcher’s song is the easiest way to identify their species. Male willow flycatchers typically do most of the singing. Although, females can also sing, but are usually quieter. Their songs are hoarse and last around one second. It may sound like someone zipping up a coat or a wheezy “fitz-bew.”

Migration, Pattern, and Timing

Willow flycatchers are long-distance migrants. They breed in Southern Canada and throughout most of the United States, except the Southeast. They migrate through Northern Mexico before reaching their wintering grounds in Southern Mexico, Central America, and Northern South America.

Diet

Willow flycatchers are mainly insectivorous and use perches to catch their prey.

What Does the Willow Flycatcher Eat?

Their diet consists primarily of insects, including bees, wasps, winged ants, damselflies, beetles, caterpillars, moths, butterflies, true bugs, and many more. They also eat spiders, seeds, and berries on occasion. Their berry diet includes raspberries, blackberries, currants, and dogwood. This species hunts by perching in low trees and tall shrubs, sallying out to catch insects mid-air. They may also hover over leaves and other foliage to carefully pluck their prey.

Predators, Threats, and Conservation Status

The IUCN lists the willow flycatcher as LC or “least concern.” Due to its wide range and extremely large population, this species does not meet the qualifications for “threatened” status. These birds are common within their range, but they have undergone a moderate decline since 1970. This species faces threats from habitat loss, habitat degradation, overgrazing, and parasitism from the brown-headed cowbird

What Eats the Willow Flycatcher?

Willow flycatchers have several natural predators, including snakes, voles, ravens, hawks, owls, and weasels. King snakes and milk snakes are known for stealing flycatcher eggs, and other species, like great horned owls, long-tailed weasels, and cooper’s hawks, will eat their nestlings. These flycatchers may give chase to intruders, including the brown-headed cowbird, which lays its eggs in flycatcher nests.

Reproduction, Young, and Molting

The courtship behavior of the willow flycatcher is not well-known. However, it likely involves males chasing females and singing. These birds are primarily monogamous, often repairing with the same mate each breeding season. Females lay three to four buff to white eggs with brown spots. And she incubates them alone for 12 to 15 days. Once hatched, both parents bring food and feed the nestlings. Nestlings have their eyes close and are naked with patches of down on their heads and spines. Their young take their first flight between 12 and 14 days old. They undergo their first pre-basic molt before leaving the breeding grounds. The willow flycatcher lives an average of two to three years, but they are known for living up to 11 years.

Population

The global willow flycatcher population is estimated to number 8.1 million mature individuals. While their population is not severely fragmented, they are experiencing a continuing decline. This species has been moderately declining at an average rate of 12% over ten years. Due to its vast population size, the decline is not rapid enough to approach a vulnerable status.

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About the Author

Niccoy is a professional writer for A-Z Animals, and her primary focus is on birds, travel, and interesting facts of all kinds. Niccoy has been writing and researching about travel, nature, wildlife, and business for several years and holds a business degree from Metropolitan State University in Denver. A resident of Florida, Niccoy enjoys hiking, cooking, reading, and spending time at the beach.

Willow Flycatcher FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Is the willow flycatcher endangered?

The IUCN lists the willow flycatcher as LC or “least concern.” Due to its wide range and extremely large population, this species does not meet the qualifications for “threatened” status.

Where do willow flycatchers live?

Willow flycatchers live in willows or other shrubs near water. But their exact habitat varies by subspecies. Those in the Northwest may utilize drier scrubby areas, while in the Southwest, you can find them in river islands and scrubby fields.

Where are willow flycatcher nests?

Females pick a nesting spot in a deciduous shrub or tree, typically a willow, and place it two to five feet above the earth in a fork of a branch.

How big are willow flycatchers?

The willow flycatcher is small and slender, weighing 0.4 to 0.6 ounces and measuring 5.2 to 6 inches long, with a 7.5 to 9.4-inch wingspan. Despite their relatively tiny size, they are actually one of the largest in their genus.

Do willow flycatchers migrate?

They are long-distance migrants. This species breeds in Canada and the US and winters in Mexico, Central, and South America.

What do willow flycatchers eat?

They eat insects, spiders, seeds, and berries. Their insect diet includes bees, wasps, winged ants, damselflies, beetles, caterpillars, moths, butterflies, true bugs, and many more.

What are willow flycatcher predators?

Willow flycatchers have several natural predators, including snakes, voles, ravens, hawks, owls, and weasels.

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

Sources
  1. IUCN RedList, Available here: https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/22699848/138005562
  2. Sierra Forest Legacy, Available here: https://www.sierraforestlegacy.org/Resources/Conservation/SierraNevadaWildlife/WillowFlycatcher/WF-Green03.pdf
  3. Oxford Academic, Available here: https://academic.oup.com/auk/article/101/1/13/5191285

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