The Phoebe that helped me solve a mystery
Last year when I returned from New Mexico I found an Eastern Phoebe’s nest under the eaves above my front door. I witnessed the three nestlings mature with deep pleasure, happy because the phoebes have only nested on the house once before, though this little valley has been home to these endearing birds ever since I built the house. Every year I watch them hunt from the wild apple tree with its golden apples that spans the entire southern wall of the house and overlooks the brook. In fact I am watching a phoebe hunt as I write these words. In years past I always looked forward to their arrival in the early spring after a long Maine winter.
This spring the phoebes chose another nest site, probably one of their old ones, perhaps because last year I removed the dormer that protected their nest; I can’t be sure.
Two days ago I watched a phoebe fly from a nearby crabapple towards the very spot above the door where the birds had their nest last year. I was baffled by this strange behavior and when I investigated I found the answer. Phoebe was hunting hungry mosquitos – there was a whole cloud of these little monsters that had convened there apparently while waiting for me to open the door! Insects are smart, and this convocation is a perfect example of insect brilliance. No wonder the bugs were getting in. I thanked my little friend for his help before rubbing peppermint oil on the wood to discourage the mosquitos, who then vacated the area. Because I am repeating this application the phoebes are no longer hunting around the front door, but have returned to their previous hunting ground, the apple tree. When I posted a couple of phoebe pictures my friend Carol Bondy mentioned that she had some nesting on their house. I hope at some point to see some of her pictures.
In Abiquiu I hear phoebes in the gracious Cottonwoods during the winter but I rarely see them and whenever I do it is always just a glimpse of a wobbling tail or bobbing. After hearing about Carol’s experience it suddenly occurred to me that these New Mexico phoebes might be a different species. And of course they are. The reason I had never thought about this issue before is because their calls sound alike to me although the literature states that there are distinct differences. I was baffled by this apparent inconsistency. When I actually listened to the two species singing I noted that The Says phoebe has a shorter call or peep, though it sounds similar to the call of the Eastern phoebe, a sound I have heard all my life. At least one of the sources I consulted said that the ranges of these two species can overlap Is it possible that both species inhabit the Abiquiu area? If they do I would love to know.
The primary difference between the Eastern phoebe and the Says Phoebe of New Mexico is that the former have a pale belly as opposed to the cinnamon – washed belly belonging to the latter.
Both species of flycatchers migrate north in the early spring and are noted for being early arrivals. Unlike many other birds both species reuse nests. With that much said it is also true that Phoebes that are breeding in the Southwest do not migrate and are present year round.
In the east the phoebes place their mud-and-grass nests in protected places like houses, barns, under bridges or around here in nests placed close to the brook (the one on the side of the cabin was made with a lot of moss). They gravitate to protected woodlands.
The Says phoebe will also nest on houses and buildings but otherwise “is an open country bird”. The literature says these phoebes perch on fence posts and pasture wire but I have not seen this behavior although both wire and fence posts border the casita on the riverside. It seems to me that phoebes in Abiquiu would be drawn to the Bosque because this is where there are more insects to eat. Out of season they are fond of berries. They are supposed to lay two clutches of two to six eggs. Here, the family that nested under the eaves only raised one.
Both species seem to tolerate and even befriend humans who pay attention to them. This has been my personal experience with the phoebes that hunt from the wild apple tree. They watch me through the window with beaded eyes while bobbing up and down and wagging their tail feathers in that characteristic phoebe way. They do not fly away, even when I approach them; they respond to the sound of my voice with apparent interest.
Happily, according to Audubon both species appear to be maintaining a stable population.
The Eastern Phoebe became the first banded bird in North America. John James Audubon attached silvered thread to an Eastern phoebe’s leg to track its return in successive years.
The Eastern Phoebe is a loner, rarely coming in contact with other phoebes. Even members of a mated pair do not spend much time together. They may roost together early in pair formation, but even during egg laying the female frequently chases the male away from her. I didn’t find similar information about the Says phoebe but my guess is that the two behave in much the same way. I never glimpsed more than one at a time in Abiquiu.
Say’s Phoebes have been in the U.S. since the late Pleistocene. Paleontologists discovered Say’s Phoebe fossils in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas dating back to about 400,000 years ago.
The Say’s Phoebe also breeds farther north than any other flycatcher and is seemingly limited only by the lack of nest sites. Its breeding range extends from central Mexico all the way to the arctic tundra.
I know from personal experience that befriending these little birds is a worthwhile endeavor providing the viewer with hours of entertainment – sometimes at the expense of work that has to be done! The little fellow outside my window keeps interrupting my train of thought with his aerial dives.