Knoxville resident Rebecca Boyd captured this photograph of a great crested flycatcher after she heard the bird producing its unmistakable “wheep” call from some trees near her home. (Photo by Rebecca Boyd)

By Bryan Stevens

Knoxville resident Rebecca Boyd shared on Facebook on May 27 that she enjoyed seeing a new bird at her home. “Although the guidebooks say this is a common bird, this morning was the first time I’ve ever seen a great crested flycatcher,” she wrote on her post.

I congratulated her and asked if she heard the bird make its loud “wheep” call. Only one bird — the great crested flycatcher — produces that loud, whistled “wheep!” She reported that she did indeed hear the call, which helped her find the bird in a tree in her yard.

Many species of birds have been given puzzling common names, and this is certainly the case for the great crested flycatcher. This bird does indeed sport a raggedy crest. For a flycatcher, it is almost a showy bird with its brown and dull yellow plumage. There’s not much to explain the adjective “great” in this bird’s name. It’s only about eight inches long. Helped by the shaggy crest, this flycatcher looks like it has a head slightly too large for its body.

The great crested flycatcher is unique among the region’s flycatchers in nesting inside natural cavities, just like such popular cavity-nesting birds as Eastern bluebird, Carolina chickadee, and wood duck. This flycatcher will also nest inside bird boxes, although the entrance hole needs to be slightly larger than the ones required for bluebirds, swallows and other small songbirds. During spring visits to coastal South Carolina, I’ve observed these flycatchers attempting to nest inside wooden paper delivery boxes. I’m not sure what the newspaper subscribers thought of these clever attempts to take up residence in the boxes.

This flycatcher is famous for including a shedded snake skin into the construction of its nest. This prevalent tendency on the part of great crested flycatcher isn’t practiced as a whim. Studies suggest that the snakeskin serves as a deterrent to ward off potential predators that might seek to eat the flycatcher’s eggs.  With the advent of the era of mass production, the great crested flycatcher occasionally substitutes cellophane or other varieties of clear plastic in place of the traditional snakeskin. The speculation is that the bird mistakes the cellophane for the remnant left behind when a snake sheds its old skin.

As Rebecca did, you’ll probably hear a great crested flycatcher before you see it. Even when hidden in the forest canopy, the great crested flycatcher betrays its presence with its loud “Wheep! Wheep!” calls. They’re not skittish birds, however, and some patience will sometimes result in a visual observation of the bird.

Like with most other flycatchers, insects are the focus of the dietary preference of this bird. However, the great crested flycatcher will also eat some seasonally available fruit, including various berries. One of their ways of foraging for insects is to perch on a branch until an insect wanders into range. Once it spots an insect, the flycatcher swoops down to capture its prey.

The great crested flycatcher belongs to the Myiarchus genus of flycatchers, which consists of about two dozen species ranging throughout Central, South and North America.  In the United States, the other two members of the genus are the ash-throated flycatcher, which resides in the western United States, and the brown-crested flycatcher, a resident of southern California, southern Nevada, central Arizona and southern Texas. Both of these species also range into Mexico and Central America. The island of Jamaica is home to one of the members of the genus with a claim to a rather unusual name. The sad flycatcher, better known in Jamaica as “little Tom Fool,” is considered a common resident of Jamaican forests.

The tyrant flycatchers (Tyrannidae) are a family of passerine birds which occur throughout North and South America. They are considered the largest family of birds, with more than 400 species. They are the most diverse avian family in every country in the Americas, except for the United States and Canada, where they are present but without the diversity seen south of the U.S. border. Other flycatchers in the United States during the summer nesting season include the well-known Eastern phoebe and Eastern kingbird, as well as such species as willow flycatcher, olive-sided flycatcher, and scissor-tailed flycatcher. The great crested flycatcher nests throughout the eastern United States and retreats to Mexico and Central America during the winter months, although a few migrate south only as far as Florida for the colder season.

Other descriptively named tyrant flycatchers include rufous flycatcher, stolid flycatcher, black-capped flycatcher, yellow-bellied flycatcher, fork-tailed flycatcher, golden-winged tody-flycatcher, flammulated flycatcher, boat-billed flycatcher, ornate flycatcher, cinnamon flycatcher and vermilion flycatcher. The latter is a bit of a standout among flycatchers in having brilliant red plumage.

Listen for that “wheep” call from up in the woodland canopy. The hidden singer often repeatedly produces the call. Once the summer nesting season ends, these birds are typically silent. On occasion, however, an individual bird will not remain mute, and I have heard the loud “wheep” call even in September and October during fall migration.

Although the great crested flycatcher is found in the region, I have observed this bird with more frequency farther south in states like Georgia and South Carolina. You just have to use a little more effort to observe this interesting bird closer to home.