Birds – Great-crested Flycatcher

(Myiarchus crinitus)


Length—8.50 to 9 inches. A little smaller than the robin.

Male and Female—Feathers of the head pointed and erect. Upper parts dark grayish-olive, inclining to rusty brown on wings and tail. Wing coverts crossed with two irregular bars of yellowish white. Throat gray, shading into sulphur-yellow underneath, that also extends under the wings. Inner vane of several tail quills rusty red. Bristles at base of bill.

Range—From Mexico, Central America, and West Indies north-ward to southern Canada and westward to the plains. Most common in Mississippi basin ; common also in eastern United States, south of New England.

Migrations—May. September. Common summer resident.

The most dignified and handsomely dressed member of his family, the crested flycatcher has, nevertheless, an air of pensive melancholy about him when in repose that can be accounted for only by the pain he must feel every time he hears himself screech. His harsh, shrill call, louder and more disagreeable than the king-bird’s, cannot but rasp his ears as it does ours. And yet it is chiefly by this piercing note, given with a rising inflection, that we know the bird is in our neighborhood ; for he is somewhat of a recluse, and we must often follow the disagreeable noise to its source in the tree-tops before we can catch a glimpse of the screecher. Perched on a high lookout, he appears morose and sluggish, in spite of his aristocratic-looking crest, trim figure, and feathers that must seem rather gay to one of his dusky tribe. A low soliloquy, apparently born of discontent, can be overheard from the foot of his tree. But another second, and he has dashed off in hot pursuit of an insect flying beyond our sight, and with extremely quick, dexterous evolutions in midair, he finishes the hunt with a sharp click of his bill as it closes over the unhappy victim, and then he returns to his perch. On the wing he is exceedingly active and joyous; in the tree he appears just the reverse. That he is a domineering fellow, quite as much of a tyrant as the notorious kingbird, that bears the greater burden of opprobrium, is shown in the fierce way he promptly dashes at a feathered stranger that may have alighted too near his perch, and pursues it beyond the bounds of justice, all the while screaming his rasping cry into the intruder’s ears, that must pierce as deep as the thrusts from his relentless beak. He has even been known to drive off woodpeckers and bluebirds from the hollows in the trees that he, like them, chooses for a nest, and appropriate the results of their labor for his scarcely less belligerent mate. With a slight but important and indispensable addition, the stolen nest is ready to receive her four cream-colored eggs, that look as if a pen dipped in purple ink had been scratched over them.

The fact that gives the great-crested flycatcher a unique interest among all North American birds is that it invariably lines its nest with snake-skins if one can be had. Science would scarcely be worth the studying if it did not set our imaginations to work delving for plausible reasons for Nature’s strange doings. Most of us will doubtless agree with Wilson (who made a special study of these interesting nests and never found a single one without cast snake-skins in it, even in districts where snakes were so rare they were supposed not to exist at all), that the lining was chosen to terrorize all intruders. The scientific mind that is unwilling to dismiss any detail of Nature’s work as merely arbitrary and haphazard, is greatly exercised over the reason for the existence of crests on birds. But, surely, may not the sight of snake-skins that first greet the eyes of the fledgling flycatchers as they emerge from the shell be a good and sufficient reason why the feathers on their little heads should stand on end ? ” In the absence of a snake-skin, I have found an onion skin and shad scales in the nest,” says John Burroughs, who calls this bird “the wild Irishman of the flycatchers.”