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Jacobs: Noise betrays the great-crested flycatcher

Unlike most other flycatcher species, the great-crested flycatcher is a cavity nester, often using holes initially chiseled by woodpeckers.

Illustration by Mike Jacobs

The great-crested flycatcher cannot be called a conspicuous bird, but nor is it shy. The least conspicuous part of the flycatcher is the crest. It’s seldom seen, except by other flycatchers, who see it as an invitation, if they are females, or a threat, if they are males. The voice, however, is loud, sometimes obnoxious, and very conspicuous. The great-crested flycatcher is a bird more often heard than seen.

The voice is what drew me to the flycatcher. I’d heard it at our place west of Gilby, N.D., in other summers, so the noise was familiar, but it took me a couple of days to place it. The clincher came when I traced the call to the top of a tree where sat the noisemaker – a great-crested flycatcher.


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This is typical flycatcher behavior. As the family name implies, this bird is an aerial forager. Like others of the family, it chooses a favorable perch and darts off in pursuit of food, which in the case of flycatchers is mainly winged insects.
The calls the flycatcher makes vary in pitch, tone and length, but they all have a sharp, penetrating intensity to them. The one that attracted my attention might be described as Wheeeee-eeep, a single note punctuated at the end. It sounds like a scream.

There’s also a series of calls, shorter and not so sharp, rendered huit-huit-huit, or whit-whit-whit. This resembles a whistle. Variations of these calls can sound more or less raspy, but they never approach what would be called musical – at least to my ear – and I’ve been hearing a lot of these calls lately.


This flycatcher is near the western edge of its range here, but the open, wooded character of our farmyard is inviting to great-crested flycatchers, which favor open woodlands. They’re sometimes found in city parks and in riverine forests.

Unlike most other flycatcher species, the great-crested flycatcher is a cavity nester, often using holes initially chiseled by woodpeckers. They may also nest in natural cavities caused by rot or lost branches. Sometimes, they’ll move into bird houses, filling the structure to create a platform on which to lay eggs.

Great-crested flycatchers are not everyday birds in the Red River Valley. The checklist of Grand Forks County birds ranks it as uncommon, and I think that describes its occurrence here. It’s also irregular, in my experience. The habitat at our place doesn’t change much from year to year (except to become more overgrown), but the flycatchers don’t show up every year.

This species is one of the tyrant flycatchers, a large family of nearly 400 species, all of them confined to the Western Hemisphere, with about 40 species in the United States and Canada. The tyrant flycatchers are related to such other insect-eaters as the kingbirds and phoebes, which are lumped together under the label “flycatchers” on most checklists and in many birding field guides.

The flycatchers and the “tyrants” especially are known as maddeningly difficult to tell apart. The great-crested flycatcher stands out among these, both for its conspicuous calls and because of its size, which accounts for the adjective “great” in its name.

Nevertheless, this is not a large bird. The best comparison, perhaps, is the eastern kingbird, which is about the size of a Baltimore oriole, though it practices a more erect posture than the oriole, which is usually seen horizontally.

The Red River Valley’s farmsteads and riverside forests provide habitat for great-crested flycatchers. Farther west, they are found in such wooded areas as the Devils Lake region and the Turtle Mountains, as well as the Missouri River Valley.

The Grand Forks County list includes 11 species of flycatchers. The kingbirds are the most common. There are two species, eastern and western, and both occur here, though the eastern kingbird is more common. The farther west you go, the more western kingbirds you’ll encounter. You’re not likely to see them much farther east, though I have encountered them in northwestern Minnesota.


The only other flycatcher counted as “fairly common” here is the eastern wood peewee. Acknowledged as “uncommon” are the great-crested flycatcher, eastern phoebe (another species that shows up at our place), least flycatcher and olive-sided flycatcher. In the “rare” category, the list has yellow-bellied, willow and alder flycatchers. Say’s phoebe is listed as “occasional.”

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Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

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Mike Jacobs

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