Because of the scarcity of nesting cavities in its arid western habitats, Ash-throated Flycatchers sometimes evict woodpeckers, wrens, titmice, or bluebirds to take over their nest cavities. If the victim is persistent enough, they can sometimes reclaim the cavity from the Ash-throated Flycatcher.
Ash-throated Flycatcher nests are constructed by the female. Besides the usual collection of grasses, stems, leaves, and feathers that make up a nest, nearly all nests also contain mammal hair, with rabbit fur being the most common, followed by livestock hair and even squirrel hair.
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Description of the Ash-throated Flycatcher
The Ash-throated Flycatcher is a large flycatcher with rufous primaries, a rufous tail with a darker tip, grayish-brown upperparts, a pale grayish breast, and pale yellowish belly. Length 8 in. Wingspan: 12 in.
Sexes are the same.
Seasonal change in appearance
Juveniles are slightly browner above.
Ash-throated Flycatchers inhabit arid, brushy country and open woodlands
Ash-throated Flycatchers eat insects.
Ash-throated Flycatchers forage by observing for flying insects from an exposed perch, and then sallying out to capture them in flight.
Ash-throated Flycatchers breed across much of the southwestern and western U.S. and in Mexico. They winter from the extreme southwestern U.S. to Central America. The population appears to be stable.
Bent Life History
Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the American Goldfinch.
The shape of a bird’s wing is often an indication of its habits and behavior. Fast flying birds have long, pointed wings. Soaring birds have long, broad wings. Different songbirds will have a slightly different wing shape. Some species look so much alike (Empidonax flycatchers) that scientists sometimes use the length of specific feathers to confirm a species’ identification.
Wing images from the University of Puget Sound, Slater Museum of Natural History
Ash-throated Flycatchers do not drink water, instead relying on their insect diet for moisture. This enables them to live in arid environments.
On rare occasion, Ash-throated Flycatchers prey on small reptiles such as lizards.
Calls include a sharp “bik” or ‘ka-bik,’ while the song consists of a series of “wheer’ notes.
Great Crested Flycatcher
Great Crested Flycatchers have darker gray breasts, brighter yellow bellies, and greener backs.
Brown-crested Flycatchers are larger and have larger bills.
The Ash-throated Flycatcher’s nest is a cup of twigs, weeds, and grass lined with softer materials, and is placed in a natural cavity or an old woodpecker hole in a tree or large cactus.
Color: Whitish in color with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 15 days, and begin to fly in about another 2 weeks, though continuing to associate with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Ash-throated Flycatcher
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Ash-throated Flycatcher – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
MYIARCHUS CINERASCENS CINERASCENS (Lawrence)HABITS
The ash-throated flycatcher is widely distributed in western North America, breeding as far north as Washington (rarely), as far east as central Colorado, and thence southward into Mexico, from northern Lower California eastward to Tamaulipas. Over much of this area it is a common bird, and in some regions it is really abundant. Major Bendire (1895) remarked that climatic conditions do not seem to affect it to any extent, for it is as much at home in the mountain fastnesses of the southern Sierra Nevadas, at an altitude of 9,000 feet, as in Death Valley, probably the hottest place in the United States. He found these birds rather common in Arizona and said of their haunts there: “Their favorite haunts were the denser mesquite thickets in the creek bottoms, oak groves along hillsides, and the shrubbery in canyons leading down from the mountains, but I also saw them occasionally on the more open plains covered with straggling mesquite trees and patches of cholla and other species of cacti.” We found it at various places in Arizona, in the canyons and foothills of the Huachuca Mountains, as well as on the washes below the canyons; it was fairly common about Tombstone, and we found it nesting in the woodpecker holes in the saguaros on the dry plains near Tucson.
In the Lassen Peak region of California, Griimell, Dixon, and Linsdale (1930) found these flycatchers “on the low ground along the Sacramento River, * * * in sycamores, in valley oaks, in live oaks, and about dead trees or hollow snags close to the river. On the higher ground to the eastward, * * * the birds noted were on the rocky mesa clothed scantily with grass and with a few scattering blue oaks and clumps of buck-brush. At other places in the eastern part of the section this flycatcher was seen in or around junipers, willows, or sage-brush.”
Nesting: Major Bendire (1895) has a lot to say about the nesting of the ash-throated flycatcher, which is worth quoting:
The nests are usually placed In knot holes of mesquite, ash, oak, sycamore, juniper, and cottonwood trees, as well as in cavities of old stumps, in Woodpecker’s holes, and occasionally behind loose pieces of bark, in the manner of the Creepers. On two occasions, near Tucson, I found the Ash-throated Flycatcher using abandoned nests of the Cactus Wren, and Mr. A. W. Anthony found them nesting in the dry blossom stalks of the yucca and A gave americana in southwestern New Mexico.
The Ash-throated Flycatcher nests at various heights from the ground, rarely, however, at greater distances than 20 feet. The nest varies considerably In bulk according to the size of the cavity used. Where this Is large, the bottom Is ifiled up with small weed stems, rootlets, grass, and bits of dry cow or horse manure, and on this foundation the nest proper is built. This consists principally of a felted mass of hair and fur from different animals, and occasionally of exuviae of snakes and small lizards; but these materials are not nearly as generally used as In the nests of our eastern Crested Flycatcher: in fact, It is the exception and not the rule to find such remains in their nests. Among about fifteen nests of this species examined by myself I only found it in three cases. As nearly as I have been able to observe, I think the female does most of the work on the nest, but the male follows her around while in search of material, and apparently guards and sings to her. I have known a pair of these birds to finish a nest in one day. * * * It Is surprising how little space Is really required by them in which to rear a family. The Inner cup of a well-preserved nest of this Flycatcher, placed behind a loose piece of bark of an old cottonwood stump, measures about 2½ Inches in diameter by 2 inches in depth. The walls of this nest are composed exclusively of cattle hair, which is well quilted together and forms a fairly strong felt. The base Is formed of dry grass roots, and it was placed between the soft inner and the outer bark of the tree, which kept It intact and held it firmly in position.
Of six nests that Mr. Willard and I recorded in Arizona, one was in a bole in a post 4 feet from the ground; one was in an old cactus wren’s nest 8 feet up in a mesquite bush; one was in a cavity in an old mescal stub, open at the top and only 3 inches deep; another was in the dry stalk of a mescal, probably an old woodpecker’s nest, 7 feet from the ground; and the other two were in the abandoned nests of woodpeckers in the saguaros. All these nests were made of hair and fur from cattle, deer, or rabbits, with a little dry grass in the foundation; they made soft, warm beds for the young; none of them contained snakeskins. Mr. Willard also recorded two very low nests in holes in mescal stalks; one was 3 feet and one only 2’h feet from the ground. There is an entirely different type of nest in the Thayer collection in Cambridge, collected by W. W. Brown, Jr., in Sonora; it was 5 feet from the ground in a hole in a tree and was made entirely of dead, gray grasses and was li.ped with finer grasses and hairs; it looks as if the flycatchers had appropriated an old nest of some other species.
The ash-throated flycatcher nests in a great variety of situations in addition to those named above; evidently there are not enough natural cavities in trees or old woodpecker holes available to satisfy its requirements; so it is forced to select any opening it can find that is large enough to hold its nest, often on or near human habitations or in man-made structures, such as a drain pipe from the eaves of a house, an old tin can or pot, a hole in a fencepost, a bird box, empty mail box, or any other boxlike opening. If the cavity is small, the nest is squeezed into it; if it is too large, the extra space is filled in with rubbish. Sometimes the birds show more energy than good judgment in the selection of a nest site. Fred Gallup (1917), of Escondido, Calif., hung an old pair of overalls on a line to dry; a pair of these birds began carrying in nesting material through a hole in one leg, but it fell out at the bottom of the leg as fast as they carried it in; they kept at the hopeless job for about an hour, until Mr. Gallup tied up the bottom of the leg. They finally succeeded in filling up the leg with material, lined the nest with feathers, and raised a brood of young.
Wilson C. Hanna (1931) tells a remarkable story of a pair of these flycatchers that built a nest and raised a brood of young “in the boom of a gasolene engine shovel which had been in operation almost every day in loading clay.” The nest was “down three feet in a cavity on the underside of the boom and well out toward the end.” The boom moved, of course, with every shovelful of clay. The site may have been selected when the shovel was not in operation, and the birds were courageous enough to stick by their eggs or young. The most remarkable part of the story is that, although the birds may have chosen what they thought was a quiet spot, they did not profit by their experience, or did not mind the disturbance, for they returned the next season and raised a brood of young in the same cavity.
Mrs. Bailey (1928) writes: “A peculiar nesting site was found by Mr. Ligon at the old Miller ranch on the Pecos: a four-inch exhaust pipe six feet long standing at an angle of about thirty degrees, coming from the cylinder of an abandoned oil engine. The pipe was smeared inside with the black fuel oil softened by the heat and the parent bird which flew from the nest, that was about twelve inches down inside the pipe, to a mesquite bush on a bank above, was so black that Mr. Ligon had difficulty in recognizing it.”
Major Bendire (1895) says: “I am inclined to believe that it not infrequently dispossesses some of the smaller Woodpeckers, like Dryobate8 8calam8 bairdi, of its nesting sites, as I have found its nests on two occasions in newly excavated holes, the fresh chips lying at the base of the tree, showing plainly that they had only recently been removed.”
Mrs. Wheelock (1904) writes: “It has been caught nesting in newly formed cavities prepared by both the Texas and Gairdner woodpeckers, and in one case at least I know the woodpeckers were at work on the hole when driven away by usurpers. The battle raged vigorously at intervals for a whole day. No sooner had the Flycatchers settled the affair and begun to line the nest with rabbit fur, than the woodpeckers returned to the fray; during the temporary absence of the bandits they scratched out every bit of the unwelcome material, and prepared to reoccupy their home themselves. But as always, the fiercer temper of the Flycatchers prevailed over the brave resistance of the woodpeckers, and after repeated defeats they surrendered.”
Eggs: The number of eggs laid by the ash-throated flycatcher varies from three to seven, but the larger numbers are very rare; the usual set consists of four or five. The eggs are usually ovate, occasionally elliptical-ovate, and they have very little gloss. They are of the Myiarohua type but rather more sparingly marked than those of the Mexican crested flycatcher. The ground color varies from creamy white to pale “cream color,” or rarely to a more pinkish shade. Some eggs are rather lightly streaked longitudinally with fine hair lines, some are marked with heavier lines or elongated splashes, and a few are spotted or irregularly blotched with the colors common to other species of the genus, various browns, purples, and drabs. The measurements of 50 eggs average 22.4 by 16.5 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 24.4 by 17.3, 23.9 by 17.8 and 20.3 by 15.2 millimeters.
Young: Major Bendire (1895) writes: “The female, I think, attends to the duties of incubation exclusively, which lasts about fifteen days. She is not a close sitter, and often leaves the nest for hours, especially during the heat of the day, but remains close by. The young are fed on the soft portions of insects, and leave the nest in about two weeks, following the parents about for some time before they are able to care for themselves.”
Professor Beal (1910) reports that a nest with four young “was observed for eight and one-half hours and 119 feedings were noted, or an average of 14 feedings per hour. Both parent birds took part in the feeding until the female was unfortunately killed after the first hour of feeding on the morning of June 27.” During this hour, from 5.15 to 6.15 A. M., there were 28 feedings. “At practically the same hour the next morning, June 28, the male bird alone was able to feed only 16 times. However, the young did well, and left the nest that afternoon.” He estimated that “each of the young birds must have been fed about 49 times every day, or 196 insects in all.”
Mrs. Wheelock (1904) tells of the activities of a male in feeding a brood of three young; at first, while the young were small and naked, he swallowed the insects, “and flew almost immediately to feed the young by regurgitation, but as they grew older he carried raw food to the nest. Often he alighted on the tree near the tiny doorway and by pulling off the wings and legs prepared the soft parts of the insect to be eaten by his nestlings. From the amount of food consumed one would imagine nothing smaller than young owls inhabitated the nursery. Twenty-two grasshoppers were taken in less than half an hour, making more than seven apiece. The nestlings being so small, this seems an appalling amount to be crammed into those tiny throats; but it evidently agreed with them, for they grew at a surprising pace, and on the sixteenth day they were well prepared for their d~but.”
For several days after the young had left the nest, she watched the female teaching the young to catch their own food. “She brought a small butterfly and lit a little above and in front of one of the young. She fluttered out toward him holding the insect in her bill, then she released the latter so that it flew lamely down just in front of the eager baby. * * * The lesson was repeated with variations at intervals all day. Three days after this he was catching flies for himself, although still following the mother about and begging with quivering wings for the larger insects he saw her seize, and too often getting them.~~ Plumages: The nestlings, which are hatched blind and naked, soon become clothed in the juvenal plumage, which is darker above and paler below than in the adults. Ridgway (1907) says that the young are “essentially like adults, but pileum cinnamon-brown or wood brown, rectrices cinnamon-rufous with a median streak of grayish brown, uper tail-coverts strongly tinged with cinnamon-rufous, outer webs of remiges mostly buffy cinnamon-rufous, other wingmarkings tinged with cinnamon-buff, and yellow of under parts much paler (yellowish white) .”
Apparently, young birds have a postjuvenal molt in August and September, involving the contour plumage but not the wings and tail; this produces a first winter body plumage like that of the adult; the remiges and rectrices are evidently molted the following spring and summer.
Practically all the June and July adults that I have seen are in much worn plumage; and October birds all seem to be in fresh plumage. This indicates a complete molt during August and September; I have seen one adult, taken September 21, that is in fresh body plumage but is molting both wings and tail. There is probably a very limited prenuptial molt, about the head and throat, in young and perhaps in old birds.
Food: Professor Beal (1910), reporting on the contents of 80 stomachs of the ash-throated flycatcher, says:
Though an orchard bird, it seldom eats any cultivated fruit, but confines its diet largely to insects, most of which are either injurious or neutraL * Animal food amounts to 92 percent and vegetable to S percent for the season. * * * One stomach taken in September held ~ percent of elderberries, whicb is exceptional. * * * Of the animal food, beetles, almost entirely of harmful species, amount to 5 percent. * * Bees, wasps, and a few ants (Hymenoptera) amount to 27 percent. * Bugs (Hemiptera) aggregate about 20 percent of tbe food of the ash-throat, which is in the largest showing for that order of insects yet found in the food of any flycatcher. * * * While many of these are taken upon the wing, probably some are picked from plants. One bird was seen on a mustard plant feeding upon the plant lice, which completely infested the plant. One stomach was entirely filled with tree hoppers and two with cicadas. * * Files (Diptera) amount to about 14 percent and were eaten in nearly every month. * * Caterpillars were found in 20 stomachs and moths in 7. Together tbey amount to 19 percent of the food. This shows that caterpillars are a favorite article of food with this bird, and proves that it does not take all of its food on the wing. While no stomach was entirely filled with caterpillars, one contained nothing but moths. Grasshoppers formed about 5 percent of the food, and were mostly taken in May, June, and July. One stomach contained nothing else. As they do not often come within reach of flycatchers, these insects must be especially sought for. Various other insects and spiders amount to a little more than 3 percent * Vegetable food was found in 9 stomachs. Of these, 5 contained remains of elderberries; 2, bits of other small fruit; and 2, skIns which might have been those of cultivated varieties.
Bendire (1895) adds to the vegetable food the berries of a species of mistletoe that grows abundantly in southern Arizona; and Dr. Beebe (1905) saw it devouring many varieties of small fleshy fruits, when insects were scarce. Mrs. Bailey (1928) says that “five taken near an apiary contained no honey bees, but one contained 24 robber flies, an enemy of the honey bee.”
Behavior: Grinnell and Storer (1924) write:
The Ash-throated flycatcher resembles the Western Kingbird in general form and tone of coloration, but differs unmistakably in habits and demeanor. It has none of the aggressive, belligerent actions which characterize the kingbird, but attends to the business of catching insects In a pleasingly quiet manner. Unlike many of the Flycatcher tribe, the Ash-throat does not often return to the same location after sallying forth to capture an insect, but usually moves on to a new perch, evidently preferring to go after its prey rather than passively wait for the latter to chance by. Often, when taking flight for but a short distance, the bird retains the upright posture of its body, and with its tail drooped and slightly expanded flutters from one perch to the next. Nor Is it so restricted in home range as the kingbird. Most flycatchers, the kingbird included, are wont to remain in a restricted area after once being established for the season, but the Ash-throat seems to be more enterprising and ranges widely over the brushlands.
That this flycatcher is sometimes more aggressive than the above remark indicates is shown by the following observations by Dr. Beebe (1905)
As the two ravens rose at our approach, one of these flycatchers appeared from a field beyond and, kingbird-llke, gave a thrashing to first one and then the other, descending with his full force upon head and back and more than once sending fluffs of black to the ground.
When both ravens had disappeared, the flycatcher returned and instantly gave his attention to a Western Red-tailed Hawk. Uttering his loud rAe-boo! c1ve-Aod~’ the brave little creature dashed at the bird of prey, striking blow after blow, the hawk meanwhile never attempting to retaliate, but making every effort to escape from his small tormentor. Thus early in our trip the Ashthroated Flycatcher established a reputation for bravery which It always sustained.
Voice: Major Bendire (1895) says that “its principal call note is a clear ‘huit, huit,’ a number of times repeated, which sounds very much like the ordinary call of the Phainopepla; it also utters some low, whistling notes which are not at all disagreeable to the ear.”
Florence A. Merriam Bailey (1896) says: “Their calls closely resemble those of the eastern Great-crest, if. crinitus. Some are like quvr’r’r’, quirp’ and quir’r-rheci. The bird also says hip, hip, ha-wheer, the hip emphasized with a vertical flip of the tail, the wheer with a sidewise dash. The Flycatcher has besides a low call of hip and ha-whip.”
Field marks: In general appearance the ash-throated flycatcher most closely resembles our common eastern crested flycatcher, but the two are not likely to occur in the same region. A flycatcher resembling our eastern bird, but much paler in coloration, with a large, brown, bushy head, a conspicuous white throat, and a long, reddish brown tail, perching in an upright posture on some low tree or bush, is sure to be this species. It is smaller than the Arizona crested, as well as paler, and larger than the olivaceous flycatcher. The two western kingbirds have black or dark brown tails and brighter yellow under parts, as well as gray breasts.
Range: Western United States and Mexico south to Guatemala. Breeding range: The ash-throated flycatcher breeds north to central Washington (North Yakima); northeastern Oregon (Weston); northern Utah (Salt Lake City) ; western Colorado (Grand Junction and Naturita); New Mexico (Santa Fe and Roswell); and westcentral Texas (San Angelo). East to western Texas (San Angelo, Mason, Kerrville, San Antonio, and Losoya Crossing); and probably southwestern Tamaulipas (Miquihuana). South to probably southwestern Tainaulipas (Miquihuana); Durango (Rio Sestin); southern Sinaloa (Rosario) ; and southern Baja California (Miraflores). West to Baja California (Miraflores, La Paz, San Fernando, and Cocopah); California (El Cajon, Santa Barbara, Hayward, Nicasio, Ravensdale, and Edgewood) ; western Oregon ( Kiamath Falls, Rogue Valley, Prineville, and Twickenham); and Washington (probably The Dalles and North Yakima).
Winter range: In winter the species is found north to rarely southwestern Arizona (Yuma); northern Sonora (Sonoyta and Pozo do Luios); southwestern Chihuahua (Duranzo); and Yucatan (ChichenItza). Note: This species has been detected casually in winter north to the southern point of Nevada (Fort Mohave and Searchlight). East to Yucatan (Chichen-Itza) ; eastern Guatemala (Rio Dulce and Gualan); and central Costa Rica (La Palma). South to central Costa Rica (La Palma and Puntarenas) ; El Salvador (Libertad and Barre do Santiago); western Guatemala (San Lucas, Lake Atitlan, and Sacapulas); southern Oaxaca (Tapanatepec and Chivela); southern Guerrero (Coyuca); and southern Baja California (Miraflores). West to Baja California (Miraflores and La Paz); western Sonora (Tesia and Guaymas); and rarely southwestern Arizona (Yuma).
The range as outlined is for the entire species, which has been separated into two subspecies. Most of the range is occupied by the typical race, Myiarehus c. cinerasce~ns, the Lower California flycatcher (M. c. pertinoxe) being found only in the southern part of the peninsula of Baja California.
Spring migration: Early dates of arrival are: Texas: ~San Antonio, March10. New Mexico: Carlisle, April 16. Colorado: Pueblo, May 12. Arizona: Huachuca Mountains, April 9. Nevada: Pahrump Valley, April 29. California: Deatja Valley, March 24; Berkeley, April 9; Red Bluff, April 25. Oregon: Kiamath Basin, April 6. Washington: Yakima, May 13.
Fall migration: Late dates of fall departure are: Calif ornia: Berkeley, September 30; Flintridge, October 11. Arizona: Tombstone, September 26. Colorado: Mesa County, August 22; El Paso County, September 28. Texas: Bonham, October 17. New Mexico: Silver City, November 20.
Casual records: A pair was seen on May 24, 1925, at Tacoma, Wash., which is north of the range as now known. One also was reported as seen near Libby, Mont., on September 4 and 5, 1924. A specimen was collected at Cheyenne, Wyo., on June 6, 1896, while two have been taken in Colorado east of the mountains, one at Gaume’s Ranch in Baca County, on May 25, 1905, and the other in the Clear Creek Valley, near Denver, on September 17, 1911.
Egg dates: Arizona: 22 records, May 6 to June 26; 12 records, May 21 to June 23, indicating the height of the season.
California: 79 records, April 12 to July 5; 41 records, May 25 to June 11.
Lower California: 8 records, March 13 to July 11. Texas: 5 records, May 19 to June 4.
LOWER CALIFORNIA FLYCATCHER
MYIARCHUS CINERASCENS PERTINAX Baird
The Lower California race of the ash-throated flycatcher is found in the Cape region of this peninsula, and thence northward to about latitude 300, where it intergrades with the northern form.
William Brewster (1902), referring to the characters of this subspecies, states: “My specimens from the Cape Region differ rather constantly from those from western Mexico and the United States in having longer as well as usually stouter bills. They are also almost invariably grayer above, especially on the crown and nape, and less yellowish on the abdomen, crissum, under tail coverts, and flanks. The grayish on the nape is often so pronounced as to form an obscure but noticeable band or collar. In autumnal plumage the abdomen, flanks, crissum, and under tail coverts are primose yellow, the back faintly tinged with olive, the light edging of the secondaries and wing coverts slightly olivaceous; otherwise this plumage does not differ materially from that of spring.”
He says further: “Its favorite haunts are arid, cactus-grown plains in the low country near the coast, but it also frequents thickets, where they are to be found.”
I have seen no nests or eggs of this flycatcher and can find nothing in print to indicate that it differs materially in any of its habits from the well-known northern race of the species.
The measurements of 12 eggs average 22.99 by 17.12 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 24.3 by 17.0, 22.8 by 17.6, 21.3 by 17.2, and 22.6 by 16.7 millimeters.