Minnesota’s Flycatchers

Flycatchers are songbirds that feed mostly on insects that are caught on the wing, including all kinds of flies, as well as insects such as moths, butterflies, crickets, bees, beetles, grasshoppers, wasps, and even spiders and caterpillars. Flycatchers are common worldwide, but here in North America, we are home to a family of Tyrant (New World) flycatchers. These birds make up the largest family of birds in the world, with over 425 species identified. 

In Minnesota, there are records of up to 19 of those flycatcher species, though less than a dozen are likely to frequent our state in a given year. 

Identifying flycatchers can be tricky—their coloring, shapes and sizes can be quite similar. However, their hunting territories, songs/calls and behaviors can all be helpful as aids in identification. 

Below are 5 of Minnesota’s most common species of flycatchers, with some tips on how to see them—and even find them in your own backyards. 

Call: “pee-a-wee!”
Appearance: Grayer
overall and longer wings
than other flycatchers.
Habitat: Forages higher
in the trees than Least
Flycatchers, but lower than
Great Crested Flycatcher.
Most likely to see them
in wooded backyards.
Photo by Don Curle.

Eastern Kingbird

Call: sounds like an
electric spark or zap.
Appearance: Dark gray
with white underparts and
distinct white tip on tail.
Habitat: Often perches on
wires and fences in open
areas to hunt over tops of
Relies on insects and fruit for moisture.
Photo by Ray Marshall

Great Crested Flycatcher

Call: loud, recognizable
“Wee-eep” .
Appearance: Medium size,
cinnamon wings and tail,
bright yellow belly, olivecolored
Habitat: Prefers broadleaf
forest edges. Hunts
insects in the high tree
Will use nest boxes.

Eastern Phoebe

Call: Phoe-be or fi-bree.
Appearance: No eyering
or wing bars; all
dark bill and dark head.
Downward tail-bobbing is
a behavioral identifier.
Habitat: Typical in
streamsides, bridges,
farms, roadsides, towns.
Uses buildings, overhangs,
and nest structures to
build grass and mud nest.

Least Flycatcher

Call: che-BEK or whit.
Appearance: Small,
grayish, pale below, bold
white eye-ring. Active tail
flicking is a behavioral
Habitat: Frequents farms,
orchards, groves, open
Among other Empidonax
flycatchers, voice is the best identification tool.

Though flycatchers are not likely to come to feeding stations, don’t rule out visits of these insect-gobbling birds to your backyards. Many will come to a source of clean water for bathing and drinking. Others will use a nest box or a cavity in a dead tree for nesting. Most flycatchers also supplement their diets with fruit. Planting fruit-bearing plants will attract flycatchers and songbirds to your yard. 

Click here for more information about what to plant to attract birds.

Elderberry, dogwood, serviceberry

From the July/August 2022 BEV; article by Guest Contributor Katrina Hase