Bird GuideGnatcatchersBlack-tailed Gnatcatcher
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher
Polioptila melanura

At a Glance

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.
Old World Warblers and Gnatcatchers, Perching Birds
Low Concern
Desert and Arid Habitats, Shrublands, Savannas, and Thickets
California, Southwest, Texas
Flitter, Undulating

Range & Identification

Migration & Range Maps

Permanent resident.


4 1/2 -5" (11-13 cm). Very small, with longish tail. Outermost tail feathers (seen from below) have white edges and tips, most of tail black. In spring and summer, male has black cap. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (found in wetter habitats in summer) reaches desert in winter.
About the size of a Robin, About the size of a Sparrow
Black, Blue, Gray, White
Wing Shape
Tail Shape
Long, Rounded

Songs and Calls

The common call is a harsh 2- or 3-note wren-like scold: chee chee chee.
Call Pattern
Call Type
Buzz, Chirp/Chip, Raucous, Scream


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.



4, sometimes 3-5. Bluish white, very lightly dotted with reddish brown. Incubation is by both parents, about 14 days.


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

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.


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.


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.

Climate Vulnerability

Conservation Status

Although many nesting attempts fail because of cowbirds, numbers of this species seem to be holding up well.

Climate Map

Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.

Climate Threats Facing the Black-tailed Gnatcatcher

Choose a temperature scenario below to see which threats will affect this species as warming increases. The same climate change-driven threats that put birds at risk will affect other wildlife and people, too.