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Great Crested Flycatcher

(Myiarchus crinitus)
Banded 23 May, 2001 - Newport, Indiana

General Information

The Great Crested Flycatcher is one of the 425 or so species of New World flycatchers (Family Tyrannidae) that occur only in the western hemisphere. The 270 or so species of Old World flycatchers are classified in the family Muscicapidae. Tyrant flycatchers range in size from 2.5 inches long to 12 inches long, and occupy habitats ranging from deserts, mangrove swamps and lowland rainforests up to the high altitude, treeless Páramo and Puna of the Andes Mountains. Some species are so similar that identification in the field is impossible without hearing their song.

In eastern North America, the Great Crested is one of 17 species of flycatchers that regularly occur. Another 14 species of flycatchers occur as vagrants or accidentals (Peterson 2002). The Great Crested Flycatcher is a woodland bird often seen quietly perched on an exposed branch or utility line, and sallying forth to snatch flying insects. Flycatchers may also feed by gleaning insects from foliage.

The Great Crested Flycatcher makes its home in northern South America, and migrates to eastern North America to nest and raise its young.

The spring arrival of these flycatchers is often signaled when we first hear its loud, musical whreeeep (with an upward inflection) from high in a tree top. If you are not familiar with this call, be sure to get a tape or CD of bird calls and look this one up. It will enhance your enjoyment of forest sounds in the spring and summer.

 

The Great Crested Flycatcher is olive brown above with a pale gray chest and a yellow belly. It has a white eye ring and two whitish wing bars. The wings and tail are cinnamon. It is from 8 to 9 inches long with a wingspan of from 12.75 to 14 inches. Weights range from 1 to 1.5 ounces (28-42.5 grams). Males and females have similar plumage.

Great Crested Flycatcher
Figure 1 - Great Crested Flycatcher

 

Great Crested Flycatcher head crest
Figure 2 - Great Crested Flycatcher head crest

 

The head crest of the Great Crested Flycatcher is noticeable in the field, and gives this bird its name. The Ash-throated Flycatcher of the western US and the Brown-crested (Wied’s) Flycatcher of the southwestern US are similar in appearance.

The pale gray chest and yellow belly of this flycatcher can be seen in this image.

Great Crested Flycatcher
Figure 3 - Great Crested Flycatcher

 

Great Crested Flycatcher lower mandible
Figure 4 - Great Crested Flycatcher lower mandible

 

Each species of flycatcher has a distinctive bill shape and color. The lower mandible of the Great Crested Flycatcher is brownish with a horn or yellow-orange base (Pyle 2001).

Note the rictal bristles around the mouth. Bristles are modified contour feathers with sensory corpuscles at their base that provide touch sensitivity much like a whisker on a dog or cat. Many species of birds have bristles, especially birds that catch insects on the wing. Bristles are usually found on the heads of birds, but the Bristle-thighed Curlew (see Shorebird layout), have them on their knees. Owls have them on their toes.

 

The belly and under wing coverts of this flycatcher are yellowish.

Great Crested Flycatcher under wing
Figure 5 - Great Crested Flycatcher under wing

 

Great Crested Flycatcher coverts
Figure 6 - Great Crested Flycatcher coverts

 

The primary coverts of adult Great Crested Flycatchers are broad and dark brown or dusky, matching the color of the primary feathers. Younger birds have faded brown or pale primary coverts (Pyle 2001).

The tail is rufous or cinnamon colored. The amount of rufous in the outer tail feathers (more in juveniles) is a useful indicator of age (Pyle 2001).

Great Crested Flycatcher adult tail
Figure 7 - Great Crested Flycatcher adult tail

 

Nesting Behavior

The Great Crested Flycatcher is a cavity nester. They prefer to nest in deciduous or mixed woodland near a clearing or woodland edge. Natural cavities are preferred, but they will readily use a well designed nest box placed in suitable habitat from 10 to 70 feet above the ground and with a 1.5 to 2.5 inch entrance hole.

Both parents build a nest of dead leaves, twigs, grass, feathers and pieces of snakeskin or cellophane. From 4 to 5 eggs, incubated by both parents, hatch in 13 to 15 days. Both parents care for the young until they leave the nest in about 2 weeks. Only one brood is produced in a nesting season.

Banding Recoveries

According to the web page of the Bird Banding Lab, a total of 18,941 Great Crested Flycatchers were banded between 1955 and 2000. Of these, 88 have been encountered, an encounter rate of 0.46%. Banding studies show that these birds return to the same breeding area year after year, and can live up to 11 years in the wild.

If you should recover a banded bird, you can report the band number to the Bird Banding Lab by calling 1-800-327-BAND.

Economic Importance and Conservation Status

Great Crested Flycatchers perform a natural pest control service. They consume more than 50 kinds of beetles, along with wasps, bees, sawflies, stable flies, mosquitoes, grasshoppers, crickets, katydids, moths, caterpillars, cicadas and other insects. Their diet also consists of various berries such as mulberries, pokeberries, blackberries, wild grapes and others.

Unfortunately, Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Count Census data show that populations of these birds are in decline. Since these birds are cavity nesters, they must compete with Starlings and Flickers and other cavity nesters for breeding sites. Proper placement of well designed nest boxes would likely help these birds to recover to previous population levels as long as Starlings and Flickers do not take them over.

References

Baicich, P. J. & C. J. O. Harrison. 1997. A guide to the nests, eggs and nestlings of North American birds, 2nd ed. Academic Press, Boston, MA.

Gill, F. B. 1995. Ornithology, 2nd ed. W. H. Freeman & Co., New York.

Peterson, R. T. 2002. Birds of eastern and central North America, 5th Edition. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, MA.

Proctor, N. S. & P. J. Lynch. 1993. Manual of ornithology. Avian structure an function. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.

Pyle, P. 2001. Identification guide to North American Birds. Part 1. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas, CA.

Ridgely, R. S. & P. J. Greenfield. The birds of Ecuador. Field Guide. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.

Stiles, F. G., A. F. Skutch and D. Gardner. A guide to the birds of Costa Rica. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.

Stokes, D & L. Stokes. Stokes Field Guide to Birds. Eastern region. Little, Brown and Co., Boston, MA.

Terres, J. K. 1995. The Audubon encyclopedia of North American birds. Wings Books, Avenel, NJ.

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