Skip to main content

Great Crested Flycatcher Life History


Open WoodlandsGreat 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. Back to top


InsectsGreat 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. Back to top


Nest Placement

CavityGreat 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.

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.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:4-8 eggs
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.
Back to top


FlycatchingGreat 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.Back to top


Low Concern

Great Crested Flycatcher populations have remained stable across their breeding range from 1966 to 2019, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population is 8.8 million and rates them 8 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern. 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.

Back to top


Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

Miller, Karl E. and Wesley E. Lanyon. (2014). Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2019). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2019. Version 2.07.2019. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

Back to top

Learn more at Birds of the World