The Flycatcher Birds: Midair Masters

Meet the birds named for their ability to catch insects on the fly. Keep your eyes peeled for the fabulous flycatcher bird family.

Flycatcherscissrtaildmaleflyngcd Masl6221kSteve and Dave Maslowski
Scissor-tailed flycatcher

Flycatching has a particular meaning in the world of birds: perching in one spot to watch for flying insects, swooping out to catch them in midair and then returning to the perch. And members of the flycatcher bird family are masters of this behavior.

More than 400 species of flycatchers are found between Alaska and the southern tip of South America, most of them living deep in the tropics. North of the Mexican border, about 35 species are seen regularly.

Bird-watchers sometimes have trouble identifying flycatchers because so many kinds look almost identical and are recognized mainly by their voices. When getting to know these birds, it helps to start by separating them into categories. Here’s a brief introduction to the main groups of flycatcher birds.

The Bold Kingbirds

Western Kingbird0870 050711hrBob Kothenbeutel
Western kingbird

These flycatchers are famed for their commanding behavior, fearlessly attacking much larger birds that get too close to their nests—crows, hawks and even eagles. The eastern kingbird is widespread in summer over the eastern two-thirds of North America, often perching on fences or roadside wires. You may notice it first by its buzzy, sputtering cries as it flies overhead, chasing away some big bird and flashing the broad white band at the tip of its tail.

Kingbirdeastern Fragrant Sumac D Masl9433kSteve and Dave Maslowski
Eastern kingbird

During summer in the Great Plains, the eastern kingbird overlaps with the western kingbird, which has similar habits but different colors, including a bright yellow belly. Five other kingbirds are found in Florida, parts of the West and near the Mexican border.

And a relative of kingbirds, the spectacular scissor-tailed flycatcher, is seen from Texas up to Nebraska, east to Missouri and south to Louisiana. In addition, it represents Oklahoma as the state bird.

The Gentle Phoebes

Eastern Phoebe 9258vJohn Gill
Eastern phoebe

Fee-bee! Fee-bee! The eastern phoebe helps out birders by singing its name in a soft, throaty whistle. Modestly colored in gray and white, this flycatcher can be recognized by its voice and by its habit of gently wagging its tail down and then up. It often lives near people, placing its nest under the eaves of houses or under bridges.

Sayornis SayaFrancis & Janice Bergquist
Say’s phoebe

While most flycatchers migrate to the tropics in winter to keep up with their insect prey, many eastern phoebes stay through the season in the southeastern states, surviving on berries during the coldest weather.

Black Phoebe8867 052119hrBob Kothenbeutel
Black phoebe

Two western relatives share the tail-wagging habit. The black phoebe lives mostly along streams and rivers, while the earth-toned Say’s phoebe usually sticks to dry plains and ranch country.

The Subtle Wood-Peewees

Contopus SordidulusFrancis & Janice Bergquist
Western wood-pewee

The eastern wood-pewee is another small flycatcher named for its song. It perches high in trees in summer and sings pee-ya-weee? peeyerrr! It’s often hard to see, but it continues singing all spring and summer long. The plaintive whistles provide some of the most pleasing sounds of eastern forests.

Olivesidedflycatcherbe1u5848 Jun 2015Brian Zwiebel
Olive-sided flycatcher

From the Great Plains westward, this bird is replaced by the western wood-pewee, which looks almost identical but has a harsh, buzzy song: pzzzeeyeer! Related to the wood-pewees are the greater pewee of the southwestern mountains and the olive-sided flycatcher found in northern forests.

The Colorful Crested Flycatchers

Flycatchergrcrested Redbudseedpods Cd 27259Steve and Dave Maslowski
Great crested flycatcher

While most flycatchers wear hues that are subdued or even drab, the crested flycatchers show more color, with yellow bellies and reddish brown in the wings and tail. The most widespread type in North America is the great crested flycatcher. It’s common in eastern forests during summer, where it might be located by its loud cries of wheep, wheep!

In the West, the ash-throated flycatcher is a little smaller and paler, with a softer voice, and lives in open woods and desert country. Two other flycatcher species, the brown-crested and the dusky-capped, live close to the Mexican border.

ash-throated flycatcher birdRolfNussbaumer.com
Ash-throated flycatcher

While most other members of the flycatcher bird family build their nests in the open among branches of trees or shrubs, crested flycatchers place their nests in cavities in trees, and they sometimes nest in birdhouses, mailboxes or other human-made sites.

The Confusing Empidonax

Least Flycatcher bird Empidonax Minimus Are Small Migratory Songbirds In The Empidonax Family Of Flycatchers That Are Hard To Distinguish From Other Members Of That FamilyDave Welling
Least flycatcher

Even experienced birders may be mystified when faced with one of the Empidonax flycatchers. Often called “Empids” for short, these 11 species of small flycatchers all look almost the same. Colored in tones of olive and gray, with underparts varying from whitish to pale yellow, they all have pale wing bars and most have a contrasting pale ring around each eye.

Willow flycatcher bird jb 1a 19.8mb Aug26 2020 1Johann Schumacher Design
Willow flycatcher

Differences among these 11 species are slight. For example, the least flycatcher is very small and shows strong contrast in its white wing bars and white eye ring, while the willow flycatcher is slightly larger and browner and often shows only a faint eye ring. The alder is small and olive green, with a pale breast and a partial eye-ring.

The songs of all the species are different, but they’re mostly bursts of snappy, buzzy or squeaky notes, so even these are hard to tell apart without some practice.

So what should you do if you spot an Empid, or some other flycatcher that you can’t identify? Just take pleasure in observing it. Watch its perky actions as it peers about, on full alert, waiting for an insect to nab in midair. After all, even the experts can’t always tell them apart, so don’t worry about putting a name on it.

Born to Sing

Alder Flycatcher bird Empidonax alnorum, perched on branchhstiver/Getty Images
Alder flycatcher

Flycatchers in general are not the most musical birds, but they have a notable distinction from other singers. Most kinds of songbirds have to learn their tunes: If they don’t hear the song of their species, they’ll never learn to sing it properly. But flycatchers have an instinct to make exactly the right sounds for their own kind—a useful ability in a group where so many species look so much alike.

Flycatcher Bird Hotspot

vermilion flycatcherCourtesy Joseph Mandy
Male vermilion flycatcher 

Because almost all of North America’s flycatchers are migratory—and many more live just south of the border—there’s no better place to find them than the southern tip of Texas. You can see hundreds of migrating and breeding birds, including about 20 flycatcher bird species, at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.

Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman
Kenn and Kimberly are the official Birds & Blooms bird experts. They are the duo behind the Kaufman Field Guide series. They speak and lead bird trips all over the world. When they're not traveling, they enjoy watching birds and other wildlife in their Northwest Ohio backyard. Fascinated with the natural world since the age of 6, Kenn has traveled to observe birds on all seven continents, and has authored or coauthored 14 books about birds and nature, including include seven titles in his own series, Kaufman Field Guides, designed to encourage beginners by making the first steps in nature study as easy as possible. His next book, The Birds That Audubon Missed, is scheduled to be published by Simon & Schuster in May 2024. Kenn is a Fellow of the American Ornithological Society, and has received the American Birding Association’s lifetime achievement award twice. Kimberly is the Executive Director of Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO) in northwest Ohio. She became the Education Director in 2005 and Executive Director in 2009. As the Education Director, Kimberly played a key role in building BSBO’s school programs, as well as the highly successful Ohio Young Birders Club, a group for teenagers that has served as a model for youth birding programs. Kimberly is also the co-founder of The Biggest Week In American Birding, the largest birding festival in the U.S. Under Kimberly’s leadership, BSBO developed a birding tourism season in northwest Ohio that brings an annual economic impact of more than $40 million to the local economy. She is a contributing editor to Birds & Blooms Magazine, and coauthor of the Kaufman Field Guides to Nature of New England and Nature of the Midwest. Accolades to her credit include the Chandler Robbins Award, given by the American Birding Association to an individual who has made significant contributions to education and/or bird conservation. In 2017, she received a prestigious Milestone Award from the Toledo Area YWCA. Kimberly serves on the boards of Shores and Islands Ohio and the American Bird Conservancy.