Great Crested Flycatcher
How often whilst gazing on the nest of a bird, admiring the beauty of its structure, or wondering at the skill displayed in securing it from danger, have I been led to question myself why there is often so much difference in the conformation and materials of the nests of even the same species, in different latitudes or localities. How often, too, while admiring the bird itself, have I in vain tried to discover the causes why more mental and corporeal hardihood should have been granted to certain individuals, which although small and seemingly more delicate than others, are wont to force their way, and that at an early season, quite across the whole extent of the United States; while some, of greater bodily magnitude, equal powers of flight, and similar courage, never reach so far, in fact merely enter our country or confine their journeys to half the distance to which the others reach. The diminutive Ruby-throated Humming-bird, the delicate Winter Wren, and many warblers, all birds of comparatively short flight, are seen to push their way from the West India Islands, or the table-lands of Mexico and South America, farther north than our boundary lines, before they reach certain localities, which we cannot look upon but as being the favourite places of rendezvous allotted to these beings for their summer abode.
How wonderful have I thought it that all birds which migrate are not equally privileged. Why do not the Turkey-Buzzard, the Fork-tailed Hawk, and many others possessing remarkable ease and power of flight, visit the same places? There the Vulture would find its favourite carrion during the heat of the dog-days, and the Hawk abundance of insects. Why do not the Pigeons found in the south ever visit the State of Maine, when one species, the Columba migratoria, is permitted to ramble over the whole extent of our vast country? And why does the small Pewee go so far north, accompanied by the Tyrant Flycatcher; while the Titirit, larger and stronger than either, remains in the Floridas and Carolinas, and the Great Crested Flycatcher, the bird now before you, seldom travels farther east than Connecticut? Reader, can you assist me?
The places chosen by the Great Crested Flycatcher for its nest are so peculiar, and the composition of its fabric is so very different from that of all others of the genus with which I am acquainted, that perhaps no one on seeing it for the first time, would imagine it to belong to a Flycatcher. There is nothing of the elegance of some, or of the curious texture of others, displayed in it. Unlike its kinsfolk, it is contented to seek a retreat in the decayed part of a tree, of a fence-rail, or even of a prostrate log mouldering on the ground. I have found it placed in a short stump at the bottom of a ravine, where the tracks of racoons were as close together as those of a flock of sheep iii a fold; and again in the lowest fence-rail, where the black snake could have entered it, sucked the eggs or swallowed the young with more ease than by ascending to some large branches of a tree forty feet from the ground, where after all the reptile not unfrequently searches for such dainties. In all those situations, our bird seeks a place for its nest, which is composed of more or fewer materials, as the urgency may require, and I have observed that in the nests nearest the ground, the greatest quantity of grass, fibrous roots, feathers, hair of different quadrupeds, and exuviae of snakes was accumulated. The nest is at all times & loose mass under the above circumstances. Sometimes, when at a great height, very few materials are used, and in more than once instance I found the eggs merely deposited on the decaying particles of the wood, at the bottom of a hole in a broken branch of a tree, sometimes of one that had been worked out by the grey-squirrel. The eggs are from four to six, of a pale cream colour, thickly streaked with deep purplish-brown of different tints, and, I believe, seldom more than a single brood is raised in the season.
The Great Crested Flycatcher arrives in Louisiana and the adjacent country in March. Many remain there and breed, but the greater number advance towards the Middle States, and disperse among the lofty woods, preferring at all times sequestered places. I have thought that they gave a preference to the high lands, and yet I have often observed them in the low sandy woods of New Jersey. Louisiana, and the countries along the Mississippi, together with the State of Ohio, are the districts most visited by this species in one direction, and in another the Atlantic States as far as Massachusetts. In this last, however, it is very seldom met with unless in the vicinity of the mountains, where occasionally some are found breeding. Farther eastward it is entirely unknown.
Tyrannical perhaps in a decree surpassing the King-bird itself, it yet seldom chases the larger birds of prey; but, unlike the Bee Martin, prefers attacking those smaller ones which inadvertently approach its nest or its station. Among themselves these birds have frequent encounters, on which occasions they shew an unrelenting fierceness almost amounting to barbarity. The plucking of a conquered rival is sometimes witnessed.
In its flight this bird moves swiftly and with power. It sweeps after its prey with a determined zeal, and repeatedly makes its mandibles clatter with uncommon force and rapidity. When the prey is secured, and it has retired to the spray on which it was before, it is seen to beat the insect on it, and swallow it with greediness, after which its crest is boldly erected, and its loud harsh squeak immediately resounds, imitating the syllables paiip, paip, payup, payiup. No association takes place among different families, and yet the solicitude of the male towards his mate, and of the parent birds towards their young, is exemplary. The latter are fed and taught to provide for themselves, with a gentleness which might be copied by beings higher in the scale of nature, and in them might meet with as much gratitude as that expressed by the young Flycatchers towards their anxious parents. The family remain much together while in the United States, and go off in company early in September. This species, like the Tyrant Flycatcher, migrates by day, and during its journeys is seen passing at a great height.
The squeak or sharp note of the Great Crested Flycatcher is easily distinguished from that of any of the genus, as it transcends all others in shrillness, and is heard mostly in those dark woods where, recluse-like, it seems to delight. During the love-season, and as long as the male is paying his addresses to the female, or proving to her that he is happy in her society, it is heard for hours both at early dawn and sometimes after sunset; but as soon as the young are out, the whole family are mute.
It feeds principally upon insects, as long as these are abundant; but frequently in autumn, and as it retrogrades from the Middle Districts, its food is grapes and several species of berries, among which those of the pokeweed are conspicuous. While in the woods, its flight is peculiarly rapid: it dashes through the upper branches of the tallest trees like an arrow, and often sweeps from this elevated range close to the earth, to seize an insect, which it has espied issuing from among the crass or the fallen leaves.
From Texas northward, generally distributed. Abundant. Migratory.
GREAT CRESTED FLYCATCHER, Muscicapa crinita, Wils. Amer. Orn., vol. ii. p. 75.
MUSCICAPA CRINITA, Bonap. Syn., p. 67.
GREAT CRESTED FLYCATCHER, Nutt. Man., vol. i. p. 271.
GREAT CRESTED FLYCATCHER, Muscicapa crinita, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. ii. p. 176; vol. v. p. 423.
Third quill longest, first and sixth equal; upper parts dull greenish-olive; quills and coverts dark brown, the primaries margined with light red, the secondaries with yellowish-white, of which there are two bars across the wing, formed by the tips of the secondary coverts and first row of small coverts; inner webs of the tail feathers, except the two middle, light red; margins of inner webs of quills tinged with the same; fore neck. and sides of the head greyish-blue, the rest of the lower parts yellow. Female similar.
Male, 8 1/2, 13.
For more on this species, see its entry in the Birds of North America Field Guide.