Great crested flycatchers are large birds with brighter colors than closely related flycatchers. They are 22.2 cm in length, with a wingspan of 33.0 cm, and weigh usually 34 g. The dark gray head is large, rounded, and slightly crested at the top. They have heavy, thick bills that are mostly black with a pale base. The gray color on the head is darkest on the top, then lightens on the throat and breast, where it contrasts with the bright yellow belly and underside. The back is dark olive, blending into dark flight feathers edged in white. Secondary wing feathers are rusty red, as are the tail feathers. Legs and feet are dark brown to black. Males and females of this species look similar. Juveniles are are also similar, but may have more dull colors. (Lanyon, 1997; Sibley, 2000)
Great crested flycatchers live in North, Central, and South America. During spring and summer, they breed across the eastern half of the United States and the southern edge of Canada. During the non-breeding season, in fall and winter, great crested flycatchers may be found in southern Central America and northeast South America. Some great crested flycatchers are found in the southern tip of Florida and Cuba year-round.
Great crested flycatchers are forest-dwelling birds that prefer deciduous or mixed-deciduous woodlands. This species is found in habitats with a semi-open canopy or forest edge, including urban areas with large trees. Great crested flycatchers are obligate, secondary cavity breeders, meaning that they must build nests in tree cavities but cannot build these cavities themselves. During the breeding season these flycatchers will seek out forests that provide dead trees and natural cavities or cavities made by other birds.
Great crested flycatchers are monogamous birds, meaning that one male and one female pair together to breed and raise their young. This species does not have elaborate courtship rituals, but males may chase females into the nesting cavity. Males defend their mates throughout the breeding season. Some pairs may mate again in other years, other pairs split and find new mates in following years. Individuals often return to the same location to breed every year, regardless of whether or not they pair with the same mate. (Ehrlich, et al., 1988; Johnsgard, 2009; Lanyon, 1997)
Great crested flycatchers are migratory birds that travel northward during the spring and summer to breed each year. They migrate from April to May and males begin establishing breeding territories when they arrive. After a male and female form a pair, they both look for nesting sites. The female builds the nest and fills it with nesting materials such as leaves, fur, feathers, string, grass, bark, snakeskin, and human trash, which she nearly fills the cavity with. Females lay between 4 and 8 (typically 5) buffy eggs, streaked with brown or purple. Females perform all incubation which lasts 13 to 15 days. The young are featherless, and with eyes closed when they hatch. At 13 to 15 days after hatching, the young start to fly and leave the nest, but they stay with their family group for up to 3 weeks after that. Young are able to breed during the following breeding season. (Ehrlich, et al., 1988; Johnsgard, 2009; Lanyon, 1997; Taylor and Kershner, 1991)
Great crested flycatcher young hatch without feathers and with their eyes closed. These helpless young require significant care by both parents. Before eggs are laid, females construct a safe and secure nest while males aggressively defend the surrounding territory. After the female lays a clutch, she incubates the eggs while the male continues to defend and protect her and their nest. Both parents remove eggshells, fecal sacs, and food remnants from the nest during the development of the young. Both parents also provide food for the young, although females more frequently than males. Nestlings are fed a variety of insects which are caught and presented to the young without regurgitation. After nestlings begin to fly and have left the nest, the entire family remains together for 3 weeks, during which time both parents continue to feed and defend their fledglings. (Bent, 1942; Johnsgard, 2009; Lanyon, 1997)
Great crested flycatchers may live to be 2 to 10 years old. Scientists can estimate bird lifespan by placing a small, metal leg band on chicks, each receiving a unique identification number. Some scientists then set up nets every year to catch birds and keep track of those that have bands. Lifespan estimates for this species are difficult to find as few individuals return to the area where they were born and banded. The maximum recorded lifespan comes from an individual that was recaptured 14 years after being banded as an adult. These birds may die mostly during the nesting stage, in collisions with man-made structures during migration, and through exposure to pesticides. (Lanyon, 1997)
Most populations of great crested flycatchers are Neotropical migrants, traveling twice a year between North America and Central or South America. Like many birds, they are highly active at dawn and dusk, although they migrate at night. They are agile flyers and catch most of their insect prey in flight. Most of their time is spent in flight or perched near the tops of large canopy trees, they are rarely seen on the ground. During the breeding season, great crested flycatchers are territorial and both sexes will attack intruders. Males invest nearly all of their time and energy in defending their breeding territories, while females construct nests and take care of the young. During migration and on the wintering grounds, great crested flycatchers travel alone or in pairs. (Ehrlich, et al., 1988; Lanyon, 1997; Taylor and Kershner, 1991)
Though little information exists, territory size for great crested flycatchers is estimated to range from 1.6 to 3.2 hectares. (Lanyon, 1997)
Great crested flycatchers use sounds and body cues to communicate. This species is recognized by its distinctive, loud, and somewhat raspy, "wree-eep" calls. During territorial disputes, a shortened version of this call is given in rapid, ascending succession that is described as "wit-wit-wit". At dawn during the breeding season, males give different versions of their entire song repertoire to establish their territory. They also use intimidating body postures and often hunch low over their perch, flit and fan the tail feathers, and erect the feathers on the top of the head to appear crested. If the intruder does not retreat, great crested flycatchers will use physical aggression until the intruder is chased out. These flycatchers are even aggressive in their courtship rituals. Males will aerially chase potential mates, often into a nesting cavity. Like most birds, great crested flycatchers perceive their environments through the senses of sight, sound, and touch. (Lanyon, 1997)
Great crested flycatchers are insectivorous (eat insects) but will occasionally eat fruits, particularly during the non-breeding season. They mainly pick insects off of leaves or catch them in the air. Common prey items include butterflies and moths, beetles, grasshoppers and crickets, bees and wasps, flies, and spiders. They may also eat small reptiles, like green anoles. Types of fruits consumed have not been reported. Currently, no observations have been made of how flycatchers obtain water. Possible methods include drinking dew drops or scooping water from puddles, ponds, or streams. (Lanyon, 1997)
Most predation occurs during the nesting stage, as eggs and young are vulnerable and make easy prey for predators. The most common predators of great crested flycatchers are snakes, including indigo snakes, yellow rat snakes, and corn snakes eating eggs, young, and adults. (Lanyon, 1997; Taylor and Kershner, 1991)
As primary insectivores, great crested flycatchers likely play a significant role in controlling local insect populations. Eggs, young, and even adults may serve as prey for local predators, such as snakes. They may compete for nesting sites with other cavity nesting species such as red-headed and red-bellied woodpeckers, eastern bluebirds, house wrens, tree swallows, European starlings, and red squirrels.
Great crested flycatchers are also hosts for a variety of parasites. Many parasites are found in their nesting cavities. Four orders of insects have been found in great crested flycatcher nests, including flies, beetles, butterfly and moth larvae, and barklice. Two species of fly larvae have been found under the skin of nestlings but seem to have little effect on nestling survival. Great crested flycatcher nestlings are also hosts to at least one species of skin mite. (Lanyon, 1997; Taylor and Kershner, 1991)
There are no known negative effects of great crested flycatchers on humans.
Currently, great crested flycatchers provide no known economic benefits to humans. They are prominent birds in many forested and wooded urban areas of the eastern United States and are enjoyed by many birdwatchers.
Great crested flycatchers are not seen as being at great conservation risk. They have a large geographic range and population numbers are high and stable. Like most birds, this species is negatively affected by several human activities including pesticide use, large man-made structures built in migratory pathways, and conversion of forests to urban or agricultural areas. These activities result in having less available food, dieing on impact with human structures, and habitat loss. One large concern is the loss of standing dead trees (snags). Snags are critical for these species as they provide highly suitable locations for nest cavities. In some areas, nest boxes have been used to provide alternative nesting sites. ("BirdLife International. Myiarchus crinitus", 2010; Lanyon, 1997; Miller, 2002; Taylor and Kershner, 1991)
Rachelle Sterling (author), Special Projects, Tanya Dewey (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, George Hammond (editor), Animal Diversity Web Staff, Tricia Jones (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, ADW Zookeeper (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.
2010. "BirdLife International. Myiarchus crinitus" (On-line). IUCN 2010. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Accessed June 12, 2011 at http://www.iucnredlist.org/apps/redlist/details/145324/0.
Bent, A. 1942. Life histories of North American flycatchers, larks, swallows and their allies. Bulletin of the United States National Museum, 179: 106-123.
Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, D. Wheye. 1988. The Birder's Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc..
Johnsgard, P. 2009. "Birds of the Great Plains" (On-line). Papers of the Biological Sciences. Accessed June 08, 2011 at http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1000&context=bioscibirdsgreatplains.
Lanyon, W. 1997. "Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus)" (On-line). The Birds of North America Online. Accessed June 08, 2011 at http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/300.
Miller, K. 2002. Nesting success of the great crested flycatcher in nest boxes and in tree cavities: are nest boxes safer from nest predation?. The Wilson Bulletin, 114/2: 179-185.
Sibley, D. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc..
Taylor, W., M. Kershner. 1991. Breeding biology of the Great Crested Flycatcher in central Florida. Journal of Field Ornithology, 62/1: 28-39.