Eastern Phoebe Ushers in a Symphony

Phoebe awakened me at 4:45 AM with his raspy two – syllable call. Winter wren, Ovenbird, Robin and the Magnolia warbler followed almost immediately; they were all trilling at once. What symphony! Entranced, I couldn’t fall back to sleep. Unlike the other birds that I couldn’t see, Phoebe called repeatedly for the next half an hour sitting on his perch just outside my window.

Every spring a pair of Eastern phoebes arrive here in mid April. For a week or two they court around the cabin, and then to my utter frustration they end up nesting somewhere down by the brook.

Until this year.

Eastern Phoebe (Cornell)

It is May 20th and these birds have been courting around the house so enthusiastically that I believed that this season might be different.  When one began to deposit brocade moss on a narrow inaccessible ledge just above the door I peered at its width uneasily. The ledge wasn’t even 3 inches wide. Why there, when phoebe had all these wide enough log corners to nest upon? But the brocade moss kept coming and soon moss covered the ledge extending the length of the door. Bits of brocade landed on my head as I came in and out of the house. Strands of old hay followed.

 I was utterly baffled until I spoke to bird expert James Reddoch of Mahoosuc Land Trust (he would never call himself an expert but he is). James told me that a male phoebe could decide to build a false nest to impress his mate. Although I had done some research on my own, none of the sources I consulted had included this bit of information. 

Two days ago this curious behavior ceased as quickly as it began. Both phoebes still hunt around the eaves but are also flying around down by the brook. The male continues to perch outside my window to call up the dawn each morning.

To say that I am disappointed about the phoebe’s decision to nest elsewhere is an understatement. I have had robins and wrens nest on the cabin’s top logs in the past. I am wondering if the amount of squirrel activity might be an issue for the phoebes because I am inundated with squirrels, both reds and grays.  Perhaps this might also be a reason the male chose this particular spot for a pretend nest? Any squirrel would have a tough time getting to that place. Just in case, I am going to add a little extension to the ledge and see what happens next spring.

my phoebe just outside my door

The Eastern phoebe, a flycatcher, is one of the earliest migrants arriving in northern climates as early as March in some areas from as far south as Texas. Their breeding grounds extend well into Canada, and nests are built under bridges, houses and barns, an adaptation that has endeared them to people like me. If the original nest sites were on vertical stream banks or small rock outcroppings in the woods with a niche providing support and some protection from above (Audubon) then where do my phoebes nest? I have never found a nest in all these years.  From what I have read they are constructed with a mud base, and then lined with mosses, grasses and animal hair.

Surprisingly, one male may have two mates and may help to feed the young in two nests at once according to the Cornell bird site. Unlike most birds, phoebes often reuse their nests, or renovate an old robin’s nest laying anywhere from two to six eggs that the female incubates. Both parents feed nestlings who are ready to leave in a couple of weeks. Phoebes raise two broods a year. These little characters habitually flick their tails in the most engaging way as they perch and hunt from low branches. No one seems to know why. 

In addition to the characteristic phoebe call these birds also emit sharp peeps. They have short sword -like bills, an adaptation that allows them to capture insects easily. Phoebes make brief flights to capture their pray often returning to the same perch in seconds.  Some bugs are caught in mid – air, some are snatched from branches, and others from the ground. I lose time watching them hunt. The kinds of insects vary and include ticks (!), small wasps, bees, beetles, flies grasshoppers, spiders, and millipedes. Phoebes also eat berries, probably a staple of winter diets.

Research done at Cornell by Frank La Sorte has raised a fascinating issue. There is a group that includes the Eastern phoebe, the Hermit thrush, the Yellow Rumped warbler and Red eyed vireo that have developed a physiological adaptation that allows them to switch from a diet of insects during spring and summer to berries and seeds in fall. From insectivore to omnivore.

 La Sorte’s research, using eBird data and weather radar images of massive flocks of birds, provided the first documented evidence that these insectivores-turned-omnivores migrate on the omnivore’s later schedule, with a migration window that extends into November. That is, these birds enjoy the omnivore’s advantage of waiting for just the right nights for flight”

That diet is a factor driving migration makes a lot of sense because the ancestors of these birds started flying long distances in order to follow available food. Insectivores must leave when insects decline, omnivores like sparrows cans stay on and so can this third group that includes phoebes because of this digestive adaptation that allows them to change their diets as the season shifts. Amazing!

I was upset to learn that phoebes are on the decline. Audubon projects that the species will move further north as the climate continues to warm and more range is lost to the south. Wildfires are a growing threat throughout the country. Spring heat waves put chicks at risk and of course, insecticides and habitat fragmentation are endemic to the loss of all birds including phoebes.

What can we do? Encourage phoebes to nest around the house especially if you have no land by putting up nesting boxes. Stop using pesticides and herbicides. Let lawns grow into wildflower meadows that encourage more insects. Support individuals and organizations like land trusts that champion unbroken forests, our one hope for the survival of all wildlife including all birds. Birds and forests belong together. Imagine stepping out your door into Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’. Just the thought is enough to bring me to my knees in grief.

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