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The Secret Life
of a Soft-hearted Tree

To the great crested flycatchers, the dying box elder was the best tree on the place.

Great Crested FlycatchersIt's a worthless tree, the old box elder in our yard. It's been declining for at least ten years, bark sloughing off in places, bare branches of the crown craggy against the sky. Several big limbs broke off in a winter ice storm.

Nevertheless, the tree put out new leaves in spring. It's not situated where it can drop branches on a house or a parked car, so we've put off cutting it down.

Question in the air

One morning, setting out tomato plants in my garden, I heard a loud, insistent cry from up in the box elder. Wheep? The call rose in pitch like a question but had the emphasis of a command. A bird sailed out of the foliage, queried Wheep? in the air, and perched erect on a shattered branch. The bird's broad tail was cinnamon, its belly lemon custard. From behind me came another Wheep? and a similar bird landed nearby.

In a dozen years at that address, it was the first time I'd ever seen great crested flycatchers in our suburban yard. I wondered what had brought them.

The two flycatchers took flight at the same moment. One chased the other around the trees and between limbs, in a lemon-and-cinnamon streak. A few moments later, one of the birds stuck its head into a neat, round hole I hadn't noticed before in the box elder. The other flycatcher pushed past it and disappeared into the tree.

I looked at the half-alive old tree with eyes a little wider open.

During the next days, the two great crested flycatchers carried dead leaves, string, and feathers into the hole. A few weeks later baby birds were crying for food from within their hidden nest. Both parents brought winged insects to the family in the tree. And after the young fledged, our yard rang with the calls of the family of flycatchers, who trouped around together in the treetops of our neighborhood for several summer days. I found reasons to spend extra time outside.

Where nest holes come from

In eastern North America, great-crested flycatchers (like the similar ash-throated flycatchers of the west) nest in cavities in trees. Although they haven't got the bills or muscles to do excavation work themselves, they use the holes that woodpeckers have created.

Woodpeckers don't go for perfect, healthy trees. They select dead or dying trees, whose heartwood has begun to decompose. After chiseling laboriously through the tough outer layers of wood, a woodpecker can easily dig out a sac-shaped hollow in the soft interior. Perfect for cradling eggs and young. In subsequent seasons, the woodpeckers create new nest holes, and other cavity-nesting birds inherit the abandoned ones.

And that's what brought the great crested flycatchers to my yard. A hole in a worthless tree.

So the ancient box elder stands at the edge of our yard, its baldness rising above all the green heads that crowd around it. I think we'll let that tree stand a little longer. To some eyes the soft-hearted box elder might be unsightly. But as far as the birds are concerned, it's the best tree on the place.

-- Diane Cooledge Porter

This story first appeared in the Backyard Bird Newsletter, April, 2005.
Copyright 2005 by Diane Porter.



Great Crested Flycatcher

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