It’s nesting season! My birdhouses have had several different species in them this summer including tree swallows, house wrens and bluebirds. There are Eastern phoebes nesting in the scrubby area to the east of my house and there’s a robin trying to raise a family under one of our canoes as well. And this summer, like every summer since I moved in, my birdhouses have been inspected and rejected by one of my favorite woodland birds: great crested flycatchers.
This is disappointing, because I always enjoy hearing these Eastern U.S. insect-eaters and having them nest in your yard is about the best way to watch them as they prefer to stay hidden in the tree canopy. Friend of the column Dianne in the town of Gingles has had them nesting in her yard and this year has a nest cam she’s been sharing on social media. I’m only a little jealous and am looking forward to seeing the family’s progress. Great cresteds are the only flycatcher that nests in cavities, and birding websites recommend your nest box be 12 to 20 feet above the ground in open, wooded areas. I’m not sure how high up Dianne’s birdhouse is, but clearly they like hers better than mine.
Great crested flycatchers are big-headed birds without as prominent a crest as their name suggests. They’re on the skinny side and a little smaller than a robin, with a yellow underside and pretty rust-colored tail and primary feathers. Most of the time you’ll hear them before you see them; they have a loud, very easily recognized “wheep-wheep” ascending whistle. They also have a burry-sounding call that resembles nothing so much as an old-fashioned police whistle. Once you hear this you can spot them swooping after insects or even crashing into tree branches while chasing them. They don’t hop around on the ground or spend much time around bird feeders. They’ll eat all manner of insects and also swallow small fruits whole — they just throw up the indigestible pits when they’re done. Indulgent great crested flycatcher parents offer whole insects to their chicks, but if they refuse to eat them the parents will crush them up for the chicks instead of sending them to bed without dinner.
Unlike many birds that require uninterrupted woodland to breed, great crested flycatchers do well in fragmented forests due to their preference for forest edges. My old neighborhood in Kronenwetter was full of small patches of woods, and it was also full of these birds. The area around Dianne’s house has more of these second-growth woodlots than around my house, and they must prefer that to the scrubby first-growth habitat around mine. Female great crested flycatchers do most of the nest-building, and they have peculiar taste. They’re known for using shed snake skins in their nest construction — Dianne’s have one prominently displayed for the nest cam — and in areas with lots of snakes (think Florida), pretty much all of the nests have snake skins in them. If you don’t have a lot of snake skins lying around, they’ll also use onion skins, so leaving a few of them around might encourage them to make a nest. When they aren’t decorating like Elvis’ Jungle Room, they overwinter in Central and far northern South America, Cuba, and they live in South Florida year-round.
Great crested flycatchers are doing pretty well as a species and their populations have been stable over the past 50 years despite decreases in insect numbers. They’ve benefited from woodland fragmentation, but they also struggle to find enough nesting cavities and can get out-competed by other cavity nesters like wrens and bluebirds (which may also explain why they turn my yard down every summer). Leaving some “unsightly” snags and dead timber on your land will support them and other cavity nesters. They tolerate people pretty well so those hanging nest boxes are also a way to help them build their tacky homes. And they don’t mind being reality TV stars if you want to install a camera!
Sarah Morris is a bird-watcher and outdoorswoman who explores northern Wisconsin from her home base in the town of Gingles. She can be reached at email@example.com.