WatchList Species Account for California Gnatcatcher
(Polioptila californica)

Qualifies for the list as a Declining Yellow List Species

Photo: © Scott Streit
Photo: Scott Streit

Widely distributed in a variety of habitats in arid, lowland regions through most of Baja California, the California Gnatcatcher has a tenuous hold in its limited coastal range in Southern California, where it occurs in arid scrub habitats on some of the most expensive real estate in the U.S. The rapid population growth and exploding suburban sprawl of the area has reduced and fragmented the bird’s coastal sage scrub to such a degree that this northern subspecies was designated as federally threatened in 1993.

Although the species is abundant in Baja California, about 3,000 pairs of the northern subspecies are thought to persist along the Southern California coast, where from 70-90% of its habitat has been lost, including about 33% from 1993-2001. Listing the species as threatened brought about legislation in California that protects natural communities while still allowing economic development. Under this program, known as the Natural Community Conservation Planning program, six plans have been submitted and approved, leading to the conservation of some 88,500 acres of coastal scrub habitat.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently designated 13 critical habitat units, totalling 513,707 acres, of which 12% is federal, 5% local and state, and 83% private. The species is subject to cowbird parasitism, and cowbird trapping is a feature of management for the gnatcatcher in some areas. Cold, wet winters can be devastating to the birds, reducing the population as much as 54% in a single year.