Birds of America
By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.
THE GREAT CRESTED FLYCATCHER.
[Great Crested Flycatcher.]
MUSCICAPA CRINITA, Linn.
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.