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Our Myiarchus Flycatchers

by Mike Scully

This article first appeared in the July 2003 issue of the San Antonio Audubon News.

While growing up in New York State, there were a number of birds I came to regard as typically “northeast” species, falling into the common error of thinking of a species as “ours” even though it might occur extensively elsewhere. The Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottus) fell into this category, as did the Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), both of which I was surprised to find occur in greater densities down here in Texas than they do up there.

Likewise, it came as a pleasant surprise to hear the familiar “Wheep!” of the Great-crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus) (shown below) emanating from tracts of sub-tropical Texas woodland, this being a species I had previously associated with the cool forests of the Adirondack Mountains. The truth is that the Great-crested Flycatcher is merely the most northerly of a primarily Central and South American complex of 21 very similar species all contained within the genus Myiarchus.

In retrospect, it should come as no surprise that the local Great-crested Flycatchers should have sounded so familiar, as a group the Tyrant Flycatchers (Tyrannidae) are singularly unimaginative songsters, possessing neither the syrinx nor the brain specialization required for vocal innovation. Unlike the songs of most passerines, the simple songs of tyrannids and related families appear to be entirely innate, unaffected by learning and thus tending to uniformity across the species’ range.

Three species of Myiarchus can be found in our area. The Great-crested Flycatcher breeds in deciduous forests throughout the eastern half of the United States and Canada. The somewhat smaller and slimmer Ash-throated Flycatcher (M. cinerascens) can be found breeding in a number of wooded or brushy habitats across the arid Southwest from Central Texas to California, north to Washington State and south into Mexico. In our area, the larger and more heavily built Brown-crested Flycatcher (M. tyrannulus) occurs in riparian habitats similar to those occupied by the Great-crested. Primarily tropical in distribution, the range of this species extends south as far as Argentina.

In contrast to the Kingbirds, Myiarchus flycatchers forage primarily around and within the forest canopy. In addition to flying insects, all three species have been recorded as taking vertebrate prey; small reptiles in the case of the Great-crested and Ash-throated, small reptiles and hummingbirds in the case of the larger Brown-crested.

Our Myiarchus flycatchers all have a similar breeding biology; a bulky nest is constructed within a tree hole or other cavity and the 3–6 eggs are incubated by the female. A single brood each year is the norm, both sexes feeding the young which fledge in 15–21 days. Myiarchus flycatchers compete vigorously with other cavity-nesting birds for nest sites, sometimes succeeding in evicting the original woodpeckers. All three species will accept cavities much larger than those used by other small birds, diligently filling the entire cavity with nesting material until the actual nest lies just below the cavity entrance.

These flycatchers have coped with the arrival of the European Starling with a much greater degree of success than have other native cavity-nesting birds. This resilience may be due in part to the fact that the nest sites favored by these forest and brush-dwelling flycatchers are less attractive to starlings, but may also be due to the competitive abilities of the birds themselves. The Brown-crested Flycatcher in particular has been observed to triumph in direct competition with starlings. Breeding bird survey data indicates that Great-crested Flycatcher numbers have been holding steady overall while the populations of Ash-throated and Brown-crested Flycatchers appear to have actually increased in recent decades.


Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Birds in Forested Landscapes: Olive-sided Flycatcher

National Wildlife Federation: Olive-sided Flycatcher

National Audubon Society: Audubon Watchlist: Olive-sided Flycatcher

Alaska Department of Fish & Game: Division of Wildlife Conservation: Olive-sided Flycatcher

University of Michigan Museum of Zoology: Animal Diversity Web: Genus Contopus

Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Birds in Forested Landscapes: Greater Pewee

North Caroline Partners in Flight: Wildlife Profile: Eastern Wood Pewee (Contopus virens) by Mark Johns

Arthur Grosset's Birds: Tropical Pewee

Download a pdf document: North Carolina Wild: Wildlife Profile: Eastern Wood-Pewee

USGS Identification tips for Western Wood-Pewee

Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds: Eastern Wood-Pewee

National Wildlife Federation: Western Wood-Pewee

South Dakota Birds: Olive-sided Flycatcher

Birds of Stanford: Great Plains Hybrids

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