Willow Flycatcher

The Willow Flycatcher is a widespread migratory bird that mostly breed in a variety of wet habitats. These habitats are mostly shrubby. Their range can extend from Maine to British Columbia, and southwards to southern California. They inhabit similar habitats in their overwintering range. Until 1973, this species was considering conspecific to Alder
Flycatchers and both species were called Traill’s Flycatchers.

About Willow Flycatchers

Alike scores of other Flycatchers, these birds are not very easy to identify based on physical appearance alone. Vocal cues are more helpful in identifying Willow Flycatchers. As a result of the similarities to Alder Flycatchers and its complicated taxonomic history, Willow Flycatchers are a very extensively studied species. Another reason for the
immense amount of study done on this species is because the southwestern subspecies of Willow Flycatchers have recently been listed as endangered. The plumage, morphology, nesting ecology, and song of this species have been studied in detail.

These late spring migrants have a short breeding season that lasts between 70-90 days. They almost always only raise one brood per season. The female takes on the responsibility of incubation, and also does the lion’s share of work in raising the broods. These aerial foragers obtain most of their diet on the wing.

Willow Flycatchers especially vulnerable to habitat degradation or destruction due to human activities because it resides in river corridors. Activities such as overgrazing, urbanization, channelization, and river dewatering greatly affect the quality of their habitats. The number of this species has steadily been declining through the years. Wouldn’t you like to know more about these marvelous birds? Let’s learn more.

● Willow Flycatchers Photos, Color Pattern, Song
● Willow Flycatchers Size, Eating behavior, Habitat
● Willow Flycatchers Range and Migration, Nesting


Willow Flycatcher Color Pattern

Newly hatched Willow Flycatchers have mouse gray down on their crown, and shorter tufts of gray down on alar and spinal tracts.

Juveniles look similar to adults, except that their wing-bars are brownish, and their upper parts are duller with a brownish wash. The centers of dark feathers on their crown are also smaller in comparison. Both sexes have similar plumages, but some very minimal differences. The coloration of these birds might differ based on the geographical range. In general, adults have olive-brown backs, white throats, and off-white throats. These birds also possess a weak white eye-ring.

They have black wings with two white bars across the top. They also have a white crest on the top of their crown which is like the crown of Eastern Wood-Pewees.

Description and Identification

Willow Flycatchers are quite small when compared to other passerines. They happen to be larger than several other species that are part of their genus Empidonax. These birds are easier to identify because of their vocals.

Several species are similar to Willow Flycatchers. Wood-Pewees are one of the species that are very similar in plumage pattern and color, but they are larger in size. They also have longer wings, and more significantly peaked crests and napes. A behavior that distinguishes Wood-Pewees from Willow Flycatchers is their habit of returning very frequently to the same perch.

Acadian Flycatchers are also similar to Willow Flycatchers, but they are brighter green on top, they have longer bills, and a pale yellowish eye-ring in contrast to the white eye-ring of Willow Flycatchers. Other species from the same genus have shorter bills so they are more frequently confused with Willow Flycatchers. Dusky Flycatchers, Gray Flycatchers, and Least Flycatchers are some other species that are frequently confused with Willow Flycatchers.

Although these species are commonly confused with Willow Flycatchers, the similarities between Alder and Willow Flycatchers are by far the most. As their physical appearance is extremely similar, vocal cues are one of the only ways to distinguish between these birds. Alder Flycatcher utters an emphatic “pit or pip”, whereas Willow Flycatchers make a whit call. Alder Flycatchers also have a three-syllable song that is harsh and burry in tone.

If birds of any of these two species are nonvocal, they can only be recognized as Traill’s Flycatchers. To identify these birds without vocal cues, you need to pay very close attention to a number of factors such as linear measurement of wings, tail, bill, and plumage coloration and pattern. It is also very important to properly sex and age these birds while attempting to make these distinctions.

Alder Flycatchers have slightly greener crowns, minutely short bills, and a slightly longer tail. Their wings are also more pointed. Alder Flycatchers are easier to distinguish from the western subspecies of Willow Flycatchers based solely on appearance, but they are much harder to distinguish from the eastern subspecies.

Willow Flycatcher Song

Willow Flycatchers have an innate song that does not require learning. This was proven when Willow Flycatchers kept in acoustic isolation for 7-10 days after hatching were exposed to the songs of Alder Flycatchers. These birds still uttered conspecific songs. Willow Flycatchers can begin to sing their advertising song as soon as they turn 6-8 weeks
old. This song includes 3 vocalizations. A “fitz-bew”, “fizz-bew”, and a “creet”. “Fitz-bews” are the most used vocalizations in their song.

Males are most often the singers. It isn’t like the females don’t sing, but their singing is a lot less frequent. The song is most sung while displaying territorial behavior. In contrast to males, females are not as aggressive or territorial, so they mostly produce alarm calls instead of singing. When females sing, it is generally weaker in comparison to the rendition of males.

Even the song or the calls of Willow Flycatchers are very similar to the vocalizations of Alder Flycatchers. Most Willow Flycatchers begin singing shortly after they arrive on the breeding grounds. This singing steadily declines as the season progresses. If the males don’t have a mate, they might sing with higher intensities and amplitudes. This singing often continues long into the breeding season.

The flight song of Willow Flycatchers is a sequence of chase notes “wheet wheet wee” which is made at a quick tempo that swiftly increases. Then there’s a sequence of “creets” and “fitz bews” which are generally during the evenings. Not all individuals produce this call every evening. These songs usually begin after sunset and can go on until after dark.

A “cree” begging call is a vocalization often by younglings when demanding food from adults. The nestlings start making this call around 16-20 days after they hatch. Male Willow Flycatchers often sing throughout the day, but the frequency of singing is always the highest during mornings. Singing usually begins before dawn. Several singing
bouts go on for about 40 minutes after sunset. During winter, singing is the most frequent in the early morning.

These birds find the highest perches available for singing. They utilize several perches in their territory. The three most important functions of the song are territory defense, mate attraction, and territory establishment. Whup and whit calls are usually alarm notes. Whit calls are also frequently contact calls between members of a pair. Uttering a contact call is the easiest way for an isolated member of a pair to locate its mate.

Willow Flycatcher Size

Willow Flycatchers are small birds from the Tyrant Flycatcher family. They are 5.2-6 inches long and have an average wingspan of 8.5 inches. On average, they weigh about 0.48 ounces.

Willow Flycatcher Behavior

Willow Flycatchers are generally solitary on their breeding grounds. They flock together during winter and migration. These birds form flocks during winter and migrations. Although some cases of polygyny exist, most Willow Flycatchers from seasonal monogamous bonds.

Most Willow Flycatchers are aggressive, especially when invaders approach their nest. If younglings are present, they don’t shy away from attacking larger birds that come close to their nests. Male Willow Flycatchers are so territorial that they defend a territory that is larger than the territory they need. The reason for this might be that the male is preparing himself for food shortages in the future, or he is preparing for safety measures if there is a sudden increase in predators in his territory.

An interesting behavior of the males is the “sit and wait” strategy. In this foraging strategy, males search for prey while simultaneously looking out for predators. Preening and head-scratching occur in males in between their singing bouts. Females generally preen on their nests while brooding and incubating. Preening is also especially common in older hatchlings. Preening of tail and wing feathers is quite regular.

These birds also bathe by flying from tech and immersing their breast in the water surface. Following this, they return to the perch. Willow Flycatchers shake their wings and body after bathing and indulge in their head-scratching and preening ritual. This process occurs many times within a 1–2-minute time period.

Willow Flycatcher Diet

Willow Flycatchers are aerial foragers that are insectivorous. Insects make up about 96% of their diet. Other than insects, berries such as dogwood berries, blackberries, and raspberries are also part of their diet.

Most of their prey includes wasps, flies, ants, moths, butterflies, and bees. Specific species of these can vary according to the geographic range of Willow Flycatchers. Hunting for Willow Flycatchers generally includes hovering or sallying in and out. These birds find high perches and swoop down onto their prey when they spot it. Brushy habitats are common foraging grounds for Willow Flycatchers.

Willow Flycatcher Habitat

Willow Flycatchers have the ability to survive in most habitats that include flying insects, which are their most hunted prey. Mountain meadows, riparian forests, semi-arid landscapes, upland areas, and semi-arid landscapes are some of the regions inhabited by them. Willow Flycatchers are called the same because their most preferred habitat is around willow thickets. These birds also like to reside in shrubby areas.

Most of these areas are near a water source. Waterbodies are usually common parts of the habitat of the southwestern subspecies of Willow Flycatchers.

Range and Migration

The time of the year determines where Willow Flycatchers will be found. They reside in South, Central, or North America. The North American portion of their range begins in southern Canada and continues throughout the U.S. The range of Willow Flycatchers and Alder Flycatchers often overlaps, but Willow Flycatchers generally have a more southern range. The southern U.S. is one of the most common overwintering regions for these birds.

Willow Flycatcher Lifecycle

It is unknown when these birds form pairs. Willow Flycatchers raise only one brood per season. These birds lay an average of 3-5 eggs. The time period of incubation is not known. The eggs have a smooth surface with a slight amount of gloss. In some cases, this gloss might be absent.


Female Willow Flycatchers take on the responsibility of constructing the nest. This nest is a cup that is woven together with strips of vegetation and grasses. This cup is anchored to a shrub. Plant filers and grasses are also added to the nest. Horsehair, rootlets, grasses, and other fine materials are used to line this cup. Nest construction requires about 5-10 days. In case a nest fails, materials from that nest are used to build the subsequent nest. The nest is usually 3 inches tall and 3 inches wide.

Anatomy of a Willow Flycatcher

These small passerines have average-sized bills. They have flat heads and long bills. Their tail is thick and long.

Final Thoughts

Willow Flycatchers are vocal birds that were considered conspecific with Alder Flycatchers for the longest time. The similarities between these two birds are fascinating! Imagine how fun it must be to successfully distinguish these two species by carefully observing their vocalizations.


Bird Watching Academy & Camp Subscription Boxes

At the Bird Watching Academy & Camp we help kids, youth, and adults get excited and involved in bird watching. We have several monthly subscription boxes that you can subscribe to. Our monthly subscription boxes help kids, youth, and adults learn about birds, bird watching, and bird conservation.

Bird Watching Binoculars for Identifying Willow Flycatchers

The most common types of bird watching binoculars for viewing Willow Flycatchers are 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. Bird Watching Academy & Camp sells really nice 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. You can view and purchase them here.

Willow Flycatcher Stickers

Stickers are a great way for you to display your love for bird watching and the Willow Flycatcher. We sell a monthly subscription sticker pack. The sticker packs have 12 bird stickers. These sticker packs will help your kids learn new birds every month.

Bird Feeders ForWillow Flycatchers

There are many types of bird feeders. Bird feeders are a great addition to your backyard. Bird feeders will increase the chances of attracting birds drastically. Both kids and adults will have a great time watching birds eat at these bird feeders. There are a wide variety of bird feeders on the market and it is important to find the best fit for you and your backyard.

Bird HousesForWillow Flycatchers

There are many types of bird houses. Building a bird house is always fun but can be frustrating. Getting a bird house for kids to watch birds grow is always fun. If you spend a little extra money on bird houses, it will be well worth every penny and they’ll look great.

Please Share to Help Us Get Kids Bird Watching