By Dessi Sieburth

The California Gnatcatcher (Polioptila californica)

A male California Gnatcatcher in breeding (summer) plumage (illustration by Dessi Sieburth)

A male California Gnatcatcher in breeding (summer) plumage (illustration by Dessi Sieburth)

The California Gnatcatcher may be a drab little songbird, but it is of great importance in California. The California Gnatcatcher is an all gray bird with a black tail, which has white spots on the sides. The male has a black crown in breeding plumage. This gnatcatcher is very similar to the Black-tailed Gnatcatcher of Arizona and Mexico, and it can only be distinguished from the Black-tailed by range, a darker gray body overall, and less white in the tail. The California Gnatcatcher and the Black-tailed Gnatcatcher were once lumped into a single species until they were split in 1993. The California Gnatcatcher is also similar to the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, which is paler gray, lacks a black crown, and has much more white in the tail. The California Gnatcatcher is a secretive bird and forages in low shrubs. It can most easily be identified by listening for its distinctive falling, cat-like meeew. Because it is non-migratory throughout its range, it can be found year-round.

Four subspecies of the California Gnatcatcher are recognized: californica, pontilis, margaritae, atwoodi. The californica subspecies is also known as the Coastal California Gnatcatcher and is found here in southwestern California. The subspecies pontilis and margaritae are found in southern Baja, and the subspecies atwoodi is found just south of the U.S in northwest Baja.

Coastal sage scrub is the preferred habitat of the Coastal California Gnatcatcher. This habitat is primarily made up of sage brush, black sage, buckwheat, and cacti on hills along the coast of Los Angeles, with a few populations inland. I have seen it in Los Angeles at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas and the Palos Verdes Peninsula Area. It also can be found near the Montebello Hills area.

The Coastal California Gnatcatcher has been on the endangered species list since 1993. There are approximately 3000-5000 breeding pairs in California. There are two major threats to this bird. The first threat is loss of its coastal sage scrub habitat due to development. Over 70% of this rare habitat has been lost in total, and since 1993, over 33% has been developed. The second threat is Brown-headed Cowbirds, which are brood parasites. The cowbirds lay their eggs in gnatcatchers’ nests, and the gnatcatchers raise the cowbird’s young instead of their own.

The future of the Coastal California Gnatcatcher continues to be uncertain. Housing developers like to see this bird off the endangered species list so they can develop coastal sage scrub habitat. They argue that it may not be genetically different from the Baja California Gnatcatchers. Recently, scientists have been trying to settle this issue by studying the genetic differences between subspecies. Robert Zink from the University of Minnesota found no evidence that the Coastal California Gnatcatcher was a genetically distinct subspecies. However, James Maley and John McCormack from Occidental College here in Los Angeles, reanalyzed the data and found evidence that it was significantly genetically different from the Baja populations. Further studies need to be done to resolve this issue that may influence the survival of these birds.

Protecting the Coastal California Gnatcatcher means protecting one of California’s rarest habitats, coastal sage scrub, as well as other declining species such as Cactus Wrens, which are also found in this habitat. Los Angeles Audubon helps restore coastal sage shrubs at Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook and at Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area and needs volunteers in spring and fall.A California Gnatcatcher in its winter plumage, (illustration by Dessi Sieburth)

A California Gnatcatcher in its winter plumage, (illustration by Dessi Sieburth)

Please email Carol Babeli at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for more information. It is important that we help protect this endangered bird and restore our coastal sage scrub habitat here in Los Angeles.