Great Crested Flycatcher

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Great Crested Flycatcher
Photo by: 
Paul Ruehle

One of my favorite activities is to sit on my back deck early in the morning during spring migration to see what is going through the yard. I can watch the feeders and the recirculating creek while keeping an ear open for the calls of migrants in the treetops. Every year or so I hear: WEEEEEP!! WEEEEEP!! What is that? It’s the call of the Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus), one of the larger flycatchers, approximately the size of a Cardinal. Males and females look alike with bright yellow on the belly and a cinnamon colored tail. Great Crested Flycatchers can also raise a bushy crest, but it is not as noticeable as the crests of Cardinals and Blue Jays.

As their name implies, these birds fly out from a perch and catch their prey on the wing, flying back to the perch to eat. While they eat mostly true flies, other flying insects, and small fruits, Great Crested Flycatchers have been known to eat larger prey items such as dragonflies, hummingbirds, and small lizards. They are commonly found in hardwood forests, woodlands, and groves in the eastern half of the United States and the southern edge of eastern Canada. They winter in Mexico and into Central and South America. There is also a population that winters in the southern-most tip of Florida.

Being a woodland species, it may not surprise you that GCFLs nest in cavities like bluebirds and wood-peckers. And just like bluebirds and woodpeckers, you can entice Great Cresteds to nest in your yard by putting up a nest box (and yes, we do carry a GCFL box at the store!). Mom builds the nest by herself and probably sits on the eggs by herself as well. Males do develop a “brood patch” which is a bare patch below the breast for maximum heat transfer to the eggs, but we don’t know if the males ever incubate or brood. It seems to be up to mom to care for the nest. Another interesting nesting habit is that this species is noted for placing snakeskins in their nests.

They will often nest in “boxes” that are not your basic nest box. One time Mark went out to start his gas grill, for the first grilled burgers of the summer and a Great Crested flew out of the grill, leaving a nest full of hungry babies! No burgers that night for Mark’s family, nest and babies were left to wait for mom or dad’s return and dinner.

Great Cresteds will never rival Robins or Carolina Wrens for their singing abilities, but they do make at least twelve distinct vocalizations. Their song suggests a red-headed wood-pecker but they’re best known for the loud WEEP WEEP call. They will be migrating into the area soon and that means that they may show up in your yard even if you don’t have a lot of trees. Just listen for the WEEP WEEP!

By Ruth Simmons

SPRING 2004