Great Crested Flycatcher: Nest and Eggs

Adult Great Crested Flycatcher. Photo: Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren

The great crested flycatcher (Myiorchus citritus) is a common summer breeder in the eastern U.S. While being rather vocal and easy to hear, seeing one may pose a challenge due to its habits of remaining inside trees. The great crested flycatcher is an obligate cavity nester famous for using shed snakeskin in its nests. This article is intended to aid in identifying great crested flycatchers’ nests and eggs.

Great crested flycatcher breeding facts

Breeding PeriodIn the south, it begins by mid-April. Progressively later in northern states. End approximately by mid-August across the flycatcher’s range.
Nest typeA haphazard nest of variable sizes. The nest cup is approximately 2.7 to 3.5 across and 1.4 to 2 inches deep. 
Substrate & LocationNests are always built inside a cavity at various heights from the ground. 
Nesting ActivitiesBoth male and female inspect potential nest sites, but the female builds the nest in 5 to 7 days.  
Egg DescriptionThe egg is creamy white, heavily marked with reddish-purple streaks, spots, and blotches.  
Egg Length and width0.88 in x 0.67 in.
Egg-layingIt begins a day or two after nest completion. Female lays one egg every day.
Clutch sizeTypically 5 eggs but ranges from 4 to 8 eggs. 
Number of broodsSingle brood per year.
Incubation PeriodTypically 14 days, ranging from 13 to 15 days. 

 

Breeding range and habitat

Great crested flycatcher breeding range. Based on species account: allaboutbird.org.

The great crested flycatcher breeds throughout easter U.S., including the southern Canadian provinces. In Florida, it breeds as far south as the middle of the state. 

Great crested flycatchers fly south to South Florida, Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean Basin, and as far south as northern South America during the wintertime.

Habitat

Great crested flycatchers favor open and semi-open wooded habitats. Wooded urban and suburban areas are ideal habitats for this flycatcher. 

According to some, the great crested flycatcher has benefited from the expansion of suburbia in the U.S. since most of these areas constitute suitable habitats for this species.

Migration and social behavior

Great crested flycatchers are highly migratory. All birds arrive in the wintering grounds, and all of them leave for the wintering grounds. Some birds winter as far as northern South America and others as close as South Florida. 

During spring migration, great crested flycatchers arrive in the southern states by late March and early April and continue flying north, arriving in the middle states by early May and Canada by late May. 

It is unclear if flycatchers migrate in flocks or alone. Based on night collisions with communication towers, it is known that they also migrate during the night.

Breeding Period

As with other migratory birds, nesting begins earlier in southern states and progressively later in northern states. Flycatchers begin breeding in Florida during the second week of April; in Virginia, breeding begins in May; and in southern Canada, breeding begins in early June.

Great crested flycatchers have one brood per season. A second brood is only attempted when the first brood is lost early in the season. 

The breeding season ends approximately in early August. A few weeks later, adults and young birds begin to migrate south for the winter.

Great crested flycatcher nest appearance

As cavity nesters, flycatchers utilize woodpecker cavities, tree hollows, enclosures created by broken limbs, as well as man-made structures. The nest’s shape, size, and depth vary depending on where a pair builds a nest. 

Great Crested Flycatchers first add a base layer of delicate and short plant matter mimicking ground-dry grasses or twigs. Possibly, this material is intended to fill in surface irregularities.

Nest and eggs of a Great Crested Flycatcher. Photo: Joseph Otton.

Nests are constructed on top of the base layer and are built from twigs, dry grass, and whatever is available near the nest site. 

Nests of great crested flycatchers usually contain snake shed skin pieces. Nests may also include pieces of plastic, paper, colored string, and candy wrappers that look like shed snake skin.

The nest has a messy appearance with a cup lined with mammal fur, fine fibers, bird feathers, and snake shed skin. The cup is typically located off-center and measures between 2.7 and 3.5 inches across and 1.4 to 2 inches deep.

Nesting habits

Great crested flycatcher nesting in a wood duck nesting box. Photo: Tommy P. World.

The male great crested flycatchers arrive on the breeding grounds between seven and twelve days before the females. However, both the male and female go around inspecting potential nesting sites during nest selection.

fThe males may arrive earlier to find nesting sites for the females to check when they arrive.

Nest building

Upon arrival from the wintering grounds, flycatchers may take 3 to 4 weeks to start building nests.

Once a nesting site is selected, the female alone builds the nest, taking between 5 to 7 days to complete.

The flycatcher pairs attempt only one brood per season, and if the nest fails at one nest site, they change to another one if the loss occurs early in the breeding season.

Nesting sites, including nesting boxes, are frequently used over several years. 

Nesting cavity

Adult Great Crested Flycatcher building a nest in a natural nesting cavity. Photo: Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren.

Flycatchers are somewhat flexible when it comes to choosing a nesting cavity. They can use abandoned woodpecker cavities and any other natural cavity that offers enough space to build a nest inside. 

The entrance hole is not a restrictive aspect of the cavity. Entrance holes can be well-defined such as those of woodpecker cavities and nesting boxes or can use wide pipe-like entrance holes as wide as the area where the nest is built.

Great crested flycatchers nest inside mailboxes, open pipes, rain gutters, open boxes, and crevices in houses and bars.

Egg appearance

The egg is oval to short oval with an approximate length of 0.88 inches and breadth of 0.67 inches. 

It is easy to identify the eggs by their color and marking pattern. The egg is creamy white to pinkish-white, heavily marked with a combination of reddish-purple streaks, spots, and blotches.  

Great crested flycatcher egg. Notice the piece of snake shed skin. Photo: Terry Atwood.

The markings can vary from being evenly distributed to being concentrated on the broad side of the egg.

Egg Laying

The female great crested flycatcher starts laying eggs after the nest cup is properly lined. She lays an egg every day in the early morning hours. 

During the egg-laying period, the female does not remain in the nesting cavity and may continue to add nesting material.

In southern states, the egg-laying period begins earlier than in northern states based on the temperature. 

Clutch size

Great crested flycatchers’ clutch size ranges between 4 to 8 eggs, but typically, they lay an average of 5 eggs.   

Incubation of the eggs

The female starts incubating the eggs either after laying the last or next to the last egg. 

The female is the only one who incubates the eggs. While the male is usually near the nesting site to protect both the female and the eggs, he does not enter the nest nor bring food to the incubating female.

The female covers the eggs with shed snake skin and other material every time she leaves the nest. 

Incubation period

Incubation lasts between 13 and 15 days, with an average of 14 days across the flycatcher’s range.

References:

  • Baicich, P.J. and Harrison, C.J.O. (1997). A Guide to the Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds. Academic Press, San Diego, California.
  • Brennan, S. P. and G. D. Schnell. (2007). Multiscale analysis of tyrannid abundances and landscape variables in the Central Plains, USA. Wilson Journal of Ornithology 119 (4):631-647.
  • Caine, L. A. and W. R. Marion. (1991). Artificial addition of snags and nest boxes to slash pine plantations. Journal of Field Ornithology 62:97-106.
  • Macdougall-Shackleton, E. A. and R. J. Robertson. (1995). Mate guarding tactics used by Great Crested Flycatchers. Wilson Bulletin 107:757-761.

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