Published Date Written by David EastmanNow, we are used to the Eastern phoebe as the representative member of the flycatcher family that frequents porches and decks around our homes. But it is only one of the flycatchers we experience every summer, as they all travel up from the tropics to feast on our aerial insects. The fearless kingbird defends our waterfronts and shorelines, and we may sometimes hear the cheering, piercing whistle of "Quick-three-beers!" by the olive-sided flycatcher in our swamps and beaver impoundments through June. It nests along edges and openings in coniferous forests, so this portly fellow may think it is nesting in a Canadian spruce-fir wetland, if coniferous species and tamarack are present in a wild bog of a few acres.
And, I often hear the punctuated "Whreep!" of the noisy great crested flycatcher high above in the forest canopy, as I walk along underneath while doing trail chores in mid-summer. Wood pewees may be seen, too, but again, I pretty much hear the emphatic dawn whistle of "Pewe-e-e!" than see that little bird. It is a beautiful sound on a misty, summer morn.
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. "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. 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. These flycatchers may also feed by gleaning insects from foliage. I only see them when they alight on the ground, catching something on the grass.
Thus, this great crested is more often heard than ever seen, but when it does alight where we can view it, it looks like a bird made up of left over parts. They look like junkyard dogs! The belly and under wing coverts of this flycatcher are a yellowish, sulphur color. The tail is rusty, as are the wings cinnamon; the rest of the bird is olive-brown or gray-brown above. This flycatcher has a head shaped like a blue jay's, and about the same size, but it is too big for the long body, which is smaller than the jay's.
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. Note the rictal bristles around the mouth. Bristles are modified contour feathers with sensory corpuscles at their base that provide touch sensitivity much like whiskers on a dog or cat. Many species of birds have bristles, especially birds that catch insects on the wing. Yeah, I know, you would have to get pretty close to notice this feature!
The great crested flycatcher is a cavity nester. These birds 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 with a 6-by-6 inch interior, placed in suitable habitat from 10 to 70 feet above the ground, and with a 2-to-2.5 inch entrance hole. I can't say I have attracted one as of just yet. Both parents build a nest of dead leaves, twigs, grass, feathers, with pieces of snakeskin or cellophane as a curious touch. They may return for several years if they choose your nest box.
Kingbirds may be found vigilantly perched in the shrubbery or trees of a lake shore as we canoe on by. They will flit out to capture some flying insect, and then return to their perch as we pass. With their top knots and backs of dark blue-black, they are easily recognized by their white breasts and a band of white just at the tip of their tail. Some can find a spot of red on the crown, which gives them their name.
Eastern kingbirds sometimes prefer to nest in trees on small islands. Most of these nests are built out on a horizontal branch, and usually less than 20 feet above the ground. You may find that when the female is sitting on that nest, woe be to any intruder. The aggressive male has been standing guard nearby, and when a larger bird flies overhead, up come the kingbirds to savagely attack in defense of their nest site. Watch for this drama as you slip by in your slowly gliding canoe.