What is a Gnatcatcher?

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  • Written By: Melissa M. Dillow
  • Edited By: J.T. Gale
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  • Last Modified Date: 12 October 2019
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A gnatcatcher is a songbird that usually is bluish gray in color and has a long sharp bill that is used for eating insects. These small birds also have long cocked tails with white tips. Most males have a black cap on their head during mating season. The colors may vary depending on the species, but this variance typically is slight in nature.

There are 15 to 20 different species of this passerine bird. Examples include the Blue-gray, Black-tailed, Black-capped, and White-lored. Most of these small tropical and subtropical birds can be found in North and South America year-round. While the Blue-gray resides in both the United States (US) and Canada, it typically migrates south for the winter.

Gnatcatchers, family Polioptilidae, are closely related to the wren. These insectivorous birds are a cross between Old World warblers and the wrens when it comes to their habits and bodily structures. They like to move through foliage to hunt for insects, such as spiders, beetles, arthropods and leafhoppers.

Typically, gnatcatchers prefer to live in forests that have thick undergrowth and where it is humid. Some species enjoy habitats that range from dry scrub areas to humid canopies of the Amazon rain forest. The North American species generally likes trees and bushes to nest in. Most of the breeding behaviors of the Neotropical species are still unknown.


In 2005, a new species was discovered. The Iquitos Gnatcatcher, Polioptila clementsi, is highly endangered. It is considered by the scientific community to be a member of the Guianan Gnatcatcher family.

Like the Iquitos Gnatcatcher, the northernmost subspecies is considered threatened in California under the Endangered Species Act. California legislation initiated the Natural Community Conservation Planning (NCCP) program, which helps to protect the California Gnatcatcher and other species. NCCP plans have helped to conserve more than 36,279 coastal, sage-scrub habitats for the birds.

Since 2000, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has helped to designate 13 critical habitats for the gnatcatchers with most being on private land. This helps researchers learn more about the gnatcatcher species so that more of their habitat can be saved. Both the Endangered Species Act and the Audubon’s Important Bird Area Program have helped to restore habitats previously lost to the gnatcatcher.


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