Photo: Bob Steele/Vireo

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher

Polioptila melanura

This long-tailed little insect-eater is at home in the desert southwest, even in arid scrub and creosote bush flats where there are few other birds. Black-tailed Gnatcatchers live in pairs all year, foraging together actively in the low brush. They stay in contact with each other using a wide variety of calls; some of these calls sound suspiciously like imitations of other desert birds, such as Verdin or Black-throated Sparrow.
Conservation status Although many nesting attempts fail because of cowbirds, numbers of this species seem to be holding up well.
Family Gnatcatchers
Habitat Desert brush, ravines, dry washes, mesquites. Found in many dry, scrubby habitats. Most common in Sonoran desert with varied growth of mesquites, acacias, and paloverdes, but also found in low acacia scrub and on open flats of creosote bush.
This long-tailed little insect-eater is at home in the desert southwest, even in arid scrub and creosote bush flats where there are few other birds. Black-tailed Gnatcatchers live in pairs all year, foraging together actively in the low brush. They stay in contact with each other using a wide variety of calls; some of these calls sound suspiciously like imitations of other desert birds, such as Verdin or Black-throated Sparrow.
Photo Gallery
  • adult male
  • adult female
  • adult male
Feeding Behavior

Forages by moving about actively in shrubs and low trees, searching for insects. Often feeds more among leaves during summer and fall, more on bare twigs and branches during winter and early spring. Sometimes hovers to pick items from foliage. Unlike Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, rarely flies out to catch insects in mid-air.


Eggs

4, sometimes 3-5. Bluish white, very lightly dotted with reddish brown. Incubation is by both parents, about 14 days. Young: Both parents feed the nestlings. Young are reported to leave the nest about 10-15 days after hatching.


Young

Both parents feed the nestlings. Young are reported to leave the nest about 10-15 days after hatching.

Diet

Mostly insects. Feeds on a wide variety of small insects, including beetles, true bugs, caterpillars, wasps, ants, flies, moths, small grasshoppers, and many others; also some spiders. Eats small berries at times.


Nesting

Pairs may remain together all year, defending permanent territories. Cowbirds often lay eggs in nests of this species, and some gnatcatcher pairs wind up raising only young cowbirds. Nest site is in a low shrub, usually in a vertical fork less than 5' above the ground. Nest (built by both sexes) is a compact open cup of plant fibers, grass, weeds, strips of bark, spiderwebs, plant down, and other items, lined with softer materials such as fine plant down, feathers, and animal hair.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
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Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Migration

Permanent resident.

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Migration

Permanent resident.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
The common call is a harsh 2- or 3-note wren-like scold: chee chee chee.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
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