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Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus)

Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus)

Capturing a photo of this treetop-hopper was a real challenge. I think I may have seen a Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus) before, but I have never captured an image. I seldom trust what I think I see, especially if the bird is new to me. When I get back home to examine the photos and consult my guide books and the internet, I usually feel pretty good about the ID. Even with the photos I managed to get, I still spent some time trying to determine if the bird was a Great Crested Flycatcher or a Brown-crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus tyrannulus). What threw me was a remark in my book, Birds of Texas1, that said (in regard to the Great Crested variety): it has a “…large bill with yellow lower mandible…” I didn’t get many views of the flycatcher, but I certainly got good views of his lower mandible – and it is not yellow. So I started looking at the very similar-looking Brown-crested Flycatcher. Based on the range maps, the bird I saw really shouldn’t be a Brown-crested Flycatcher…but don’t we all sort of hope to see a bird that really shouldn’t be where you’ve seen it?

Great Crested Flycatcher

So where IS that crest? I’m thinking he’s feeling pretty relaxed, and is just not showing it off at the moment. Based on the general consensus that Great Crested Flycatchers are a loud, aggressive lot, this relaxed scene may be rare. In the book, The Behavior of Texas Birds2, the author reports that they:

…attack squirrels, woodpeckers, and other small animals that enter holes and cavities; however, unlike Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, which must defend an exposed nest, they do not attack hawks, possibly because hawks present no particular threat to cavity nesters. They ignore many intruders on the basis of song. When models of orioles, vireos, and other birds were placed in the territory, the flycatchers attacked them only if the Grest Crested’s own song came from the speakers inside the models.

Further, and as illustrated by Audubon’s plate below, males will fight one another – inflicting bodily harm – over territory:

The Birds of America, by John James Audubon ©1937

The Birds of America, by John James Audubon ©1937

When it comes to courtship, the male “repeatedly flies at the female, and after forcing her to retreat to a hole, he hovers nearby.” [Rylander] Wow. The bird I saw was behaving perfectly civilized, so he was either a gentleman, or a female. I’ve pointed out a portion of the species account in Audubon’s book, because I have never come across the term, “tree surgery.” Interesting.

This comment about being a “hole-nesting” species touches on another fact about these lovely birds – unlike most flycatchers, they build their nests in natural or artificial cavities. Even more fascinating about their nest-building is the common practice of weaving a snakeskin into the nest. I have found reference to this behavior in a half-dozen sources, but of course, I like the old write-ups:

Bird Guide by Chester A. Reed, © 1909

Bird Guide by Chester A. Reed, © 1909

Chester writes, “They have a queer habit of placing a piece of snakeskin in the hole in which their nest is located, for what purpose, unless to scare away intruders, is not known, but it seems to be a universal practice.” I have a feeling that scaring intruders, or even snakes themselves, is precisely why this flycatcher uses the snake skin. Brilliant!

image submitted to Encyclopedia of Life

image submitted to Encyclopedia of Life

I’ll close by introducing a new Internet resource I’ve discovered, called Encyclopedia of Life. Inspired by the great naturalist, E. O. Wilson, and backed by significant funding, this resource looks like it will become one of my favorites. When I attempted to look up information about the Great Crested Flycatcher there, I discovered they did not yet have any images. I signed up to help out, and donated the image above. I think it may show up at EOL tomorrow…how fun!

  1. Birds of Texas, by Keith A. Arnold and Gregory Kennedy, © 2007 by Lone Pine Publishing International Inc.
  2. The Behavior of Texas Birds, by Kent Rylander, ©2002 The University of Texas Press

9 Responses to “The Very Interesting and Awesome Great Crested Flycatcher”

  • Beautiful photos! These are indeed fascinating birds. Although I don’t see them as often as I’d like here in Dallas, they tend towards abundant around our family farm in East Texas.

    The use of snake skin is rare. I think it makes the most sense as a predator deterrent, but I’m sure some species just think it looks nice (like people decorating with toxic plants at Christmas just because the foliage or flowers are pretty).

    Thanks for the link to EOL. I hadn’t heard of it, but you can bet I’ll be taking a look at.

  • I just re-read the post and see now that I made it sound like birds using snake skins in their nests is common…what I really meant to say is that it is common for the Great Crested Flycatcher. Thanks for clarifying that, Jason. 🙂

    I thought about you when I found EOL – your photos would be very valuable to the EOL! I also referred someone from Audubon Dallas to your site, because she was looking for pics from the rookery at UT Southwestern Medical. I’m going to come by and read through your series myself!

  • Excellent captures of the Great Crested Flycatcher Amber! This bird is very similar to our Ash-throated Flycatcher out here in the West (as if Texas isn’t in the West). They are both cavity nesters and the Ash-throated is one of my favorite birds that will nest in man (or woman) made nest boxes! Your Great Crested Flycatcher will also nest in nest boxes with a minimum 1 1/2″ entrance (probably preferring 1 3/4″) .

    As far as the description goes, Roger Tory Peterson’s guide states that the bill has a “pink base,” which is clearly seen in your photos. As for the aggressive behavior, I imagine it happens primarily during breeding season when they are defending their territory.

  • Thanks, Larry – I didn’t know if I was ever going to see it! I know that most people think of Texas as “west,” but since I live near Dallas, I am right in the area where west meets east – as far as bird species go.

    I didn’t even notice the pink base on the bill – but now I see it. Thanks!

  • Amber,

    Thanks for blogging about your discovery of EOL. Not sure if anybody has curated your image yet, but maybe I’ll go do that right now.

    You can also contribute text to EOL, not just images. Check out the “Add text” icon. And bring your friends.

  • Sounds great, Cyndy. I am very excited to have discovered the EOL, and love the mission. I have contributed several photos, and will certainly add text about personal observations that may help to shape the knowledge base for the species I encounter. I’ve got a couple of blogging friends who will be able to make valuable contributions as well!

  • Linda Gary:

    Ha just discovered this bird recently, Have never seen this spices in my neck of the woods in Walulla, Florida. Have seen a few Kingfishers but not this birdie, I was attracted to a loud unusual bird sound coming from the open porch outside my back door. I looked out the screened door and there it was on the deck collecting dog hair that was left on the porch after I had washed the dogs. The bird didn’t seem to be alarmed at my presents or even having the dogs come to the door. So what I did, was brush the dogs and put the hair in clumps on the porch floor. The bird would come back to the porch and collect the rest of the hair. Always announcing its’ presents with its loud yet beautiful song prior to collections. What a fun treat.

  • Linda Gary:

    To NOTE: I don’t wash my dogs -Shepard (course hair )and Spitz (fine down hair) with any chemicals. So the hair was a safe material.

  • Linda Gary:

    Oh, just one more note: While looking at the bird, as she/he was collecting the hair off the porch, I noticed a very slight olive green tint on the back of it’s neck, while looking through binoculars.(This was at close range about 6 feet away) It may have been noticed due to the reflection of the suns light on the bird. But over all the back of it’s neck and head is brown at a distance..It raised it’s crest a couple of time when scavenging. And what a lovely crest. Cute bird.

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