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Great Crested Flycatcher

Myiarchus crinitus ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: TYRANNIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Great Crested Flycatcher Photo

A large, assertive flycatcher with rich reddish-brown accents and a lemon-yellow belly, the Great Crested Flycatcher is a common bird of Eastern woodlands. Its habit of hunting high in the canopy means it’s not particularly conspicuous—until you learn its very distinctive call, an emphatic rising whistle. These flycatchers swoop after flying insects and may crash into foliage in pursuit of leaf-crawling prey. They are the only Eastern flycatchers that nest in cavities, and this means they sometimes make use of nest boxes.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
6.7–8.3 in
17–21 cm
Wingspan
13.4 in
34 cm
Weight
1–1.4 oz
27–40 g
Relative Size
Larger than an Eastern Bluebird; smaller than an American Robin.
Other Names
  • Tyran huppé (French)
  • Papamoscas viajero, Copetón viajero (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Great Crested Flycatchers weave shed snakeskin into their nest. Where it's readily available, as in Florida, nearly every nest contains snakeskin. They also seem to look for flimsy, crinkly nest materials—they’ve also used onion skins, cellophane, or plastic wrappers.
  • Though they’re flycatchers, these birds also eat a fair amount of fruit. Instead of picking at the flesh of small fruit, Great Crested Flycatchers swallow the fruit whole and regurgitate the pits, sometimes several at a time.
  • Where other insect-snatching birds like Eastern Wood-Pewees, Least Flycatchers, Acadian Flycatchers, or Eastern Phoebes share their habitat, Great Crested Flycatchers exploit a niche higher in canopy to avoid direct competition for food. High up, they swoop out farther for prey, using multiple dead-branch perches.
  • When the male sings, it's to be heard, not to see or be seen. He picks a singing perch within the canopy, well away from branch ends. In contrast, hunting perches require an unobstructed view of potential prey and unobstructed flight paths to them, whether the prey are in the air or on leaves or twigs. Both sexes favor hunting from dead branches with a backdrop of foliage for cover.
  • Nestlings rarely return to breed near where they were born. But once yearlings have chosen a breeding area, they often return to that same area year after year. Some pairs re-establish their bond from the previous season and may even reuse the same nesting cavity.
  • Great Crested Flycatchers live along the edges between habitats; they don't need big stretches of unbroken forest canopy to thrive. That means that logging and development practices that increase forest fragmentation actually work to their advantage, in sharp contrast to birds that dwell deep in the forest.
  • The Great Crested Flycatcher is a bird of the treetops. It spends very little time on the ground, and does not hop or walk. It prefers to fly from place to place on the ground rather than walk.
  • The Great Crested Flycatcher makes the same "wee-eep" calls on the wintering grounds that it makes in summer.
  • The oldest recorded Great Crested Flycatcher was at least 14 years 11 months old when it was found dead in 1967. It had been banded in 1953.

Habitat


Open Woodland

Great Crested Flycatchers prefer breeding territories in open broadleaf or mixed woodlands and at the edges of clearings rather than in dense forests. They avoid the northern coniferous (boreal) forests of Canada. Among woodlands, they favor edge habitats in second-growth forests, wooded hedgerows, isolated woody patches, and selectively cut forests over continuous, closed-canopy forests. Dead snags and dying trees are important sources of the cavities they need for nesting. They tolerate human presence and will search out cavities in old orchards and in woody urban areas like parks, cemeteries, and golf courses. If there are enough trees, they will claim territories in pastures, along streams and rivers, and in swamps and wetlands. On their winter grounds, they extend their tolerance of wooded habitats to shrubby clearings, clearings with scattered trees, and semiarid forests.

Food


Insects

Great Crested Flycatchers eat mainly insects and other invertebrates, as well as small berries and other fruits. They eat butterflies and moths, beetles, grasshoppers and crickets, bugs, bees and wasps, flies, other insects, and spiders. These they'll take from the air, the surfaces of leaves and branches, off the ground, from haystacks, from bark crevices, or from crannies in such human-made structures as fence posts and rails. Plant food includes small whole berries, the pits of which are regurgitated after the berries are eaten whole. Dragonflies, moths, and butterflies are offered to chicks whole, wings and all, but if they're rejected, the parents crush the insects and re-offer them.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
4–8 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
0.8–0.9 in
2.1–2.4 cm
Egg Width
0.6–0.7 in
1.5–1.8 cm
Incubation Period
13–15 days
Nestling Period
13–15 days
Egg Description
Creamy white to pinkish buff splotched with brown, purple, or lavender.
Condition at Hatching
Helpless, sightless chicks are born naked, but soon sport a grayish down.
Nest Description

The female does most if not all of the nest-building, while the male keeps her close company. If the cavity is much deeper than 12 inches, she first backfills it with debris before building her nest in the back of the remaining space. She uses a wide variety of materials, from grasses, leaves, twigs, and stems, to hair and fur, snail and sea shells, feathers, bark, moss, cellophane, onion skin, paper, cloth, eggshells, and, quite commonly, shed snakeskin. The inner cup is usually 3 to 3.5 inches across, and 1.5 to 2 inches deep. The female may continue to add fine materials, like feathers, to the nest during egg-laying, incubation, and brooding.

Nest Placement

Cavity

Great Crested Flycatchers nest in cavities. They favor natural cavities in dead trees, but will use large, abandoned woodpecker holes, nesting boxes, hollow posts, and even buckets, pipes, cans, and boxes of appropriate size. Both sexes inspect potential nesting cavities anywhere from two to 70 feet from the ground.

Behavior


Flycatching

Great Crested Flycatchers hunt from perches in the treetops, peering in all directions with a characteristic bobbing head. They're swift, agile fliers and persistent in chasing flying prey; a first miss doesn't end the chase. If they've spotted prey sitting on a leaf top, a twig, tree trunk, or a weed head, they swoop down from their perch, then brake abruptly to hover just long enough to snatch the prey and fly off. Sometimes the braking is minimal, and they crash into foliage with little slowing to snap up the prey before continuing along their flight path. They'll drop down to take prey on the ground, too. Males swoop down at females from high perches to solicit mating. If the female retreats to a cavity, he hovers before returning to a perch and repeating the maneuver for another try. He guards his mate particularly during nest-building and egg-laying. Intruding neighbors are never ignored. If calls don't dissuade the intruder, a raised crest, a forward-leaning posture accompanied by a nodding or pumping head. A snapping bill and rapid chase may follow. If still undeterred, the intruder faces attack, grappling, and feather pulling. Eggs (and sometimes the incubating females) are vulnerable to predation by snakes. Squirrels also often raid their nests. In spite of their preference for edge habitats, Great Crested Flycatchers are only infrequently parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds, probably both because they nest in cavities and because they are very aggressive toward intruders.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Great Crested Flycatcher populations have remained stable across their breeding range from 1966 to 2010, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population is 6.7 million, with 9 percent breeding in Canada, 91 percent breeding in the U.S., and 23 percent wintering in Mexico. They rate an 8 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List. Local increases may be due to greater fragmentation of woodlands, which expands the edge habitats they favor. Local decreases may be due to competition for nesting cavities from European Starlings, Tree Swallows, House Wrens, Eastern Bluebirds, or squirrels. "Clean" forestry practices have reduced the number of suitable natural cavities by removing dead snags and the like from forests. These flycatchers are resilient, and will nest in a wide variety of sizes and kinds of cavities in a wide variety of habitats. They tolerate human presence and readily accept hanging nesting boxes.

Credits

Range Map Help

Great Crested Flycatcher Range Map
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Migration

Medium- to long-distance migrant (it’s possible that individuals in southern Florida do not migrate). All breeding populations north of central Florida winter in central and southern Florida, southern Mexico, Central America, and northwestern South America. They typically leave their northern breeding grounds in September and begin to return to the southern United States in mid-March. They tend to migrate alone.

Backyard Tips

Like other birds that nest in cavities, Great Crested Flycatchers sometimes have trouble finding nest sites in places where tree holes are scarce. They quite readily take to nest boxes. For best results, mount a hanging or swinging nest box roughly 12 to 20 feet above the ground, in an open woodland with clear flight paths to the box opening. Visit our Nest Watch website for more suggestions and plans to make a Great Crested Flycatcher nest box.

Find This Bird

Great Crested Flycatcher are common, large, brightly colored flycatchers—but they spend much of their day very high in the leafy canopy of deciduous woods. If you live within their summer range, listen for this species’ loud, rising whistle before you try and track one down. Listen for them at forest edges as well as in city parks, golf courses, and tree-lined neighborhoods. Once you learn their distinctive call, you’ll gain an appreciation for how common and widespread they are and you can then start watching for the birds sitting on high, exposed perches or making fast flights after insect prey.