I returned home from a trip out west on Sunday, the same day that the Eastern Phoebe’s returned to our property: right on schedule. These little birds have been coming to our place and nesting each year since we arrived in 1986 (and probably long before). That year they built their nest under the eaves of the house, but the human activity became too much of an annoyance and so they moved out to our barn and constructed their cup like nests on top of the light fixtures.
Not a flashy bird, the Eastern Phoebe has muted gray feathers on its back, a white breast and darker gray head with an all black bill.
I wish I had been able to band those first phoebe’s to learn how long one generation lived and to determine if it was their young who took their place when they were gone. John James Audubon did such a thing in 1804 when he tied a silk thread on the legs of the phoebe chicks who were in a nest near his window. He too was curious as to whether the same birds returned each year to their birthplace. The following spring one bird with a silk thread hanging from its leg was back in his yard. To many this is considered the beginning of ‘bird banding’ in America, even though the official practice did not begin for another century. Based on banding data, the longest lived Phoebe reached the age of 10 years and 4 months, which is a long life for a small migratory species.
When the Phoebe’s first began using the barn, we had horses and some of their long mane or tail hair could be found woven into the nest. That part of the barn has now been taken over by Mike’s woodworking equipment, but he has not enclosed it completely, so the phoebe’s can still come and go and use those long ago, carefully constructed nests.
Made of mud, moss, leaves and grass, they measure four inches across while the center cup is about 2.5 inches across
Female Phoebe in her nest of leaves, mud and moss – on a rafter close to the ceiling.
and 2 inches deep. The wooden ceiling boards are only 2 inches above, which is also typical of Phoebe nests. Unlike most birds, they will reuse nests in subsequent years, as our pairs have demonstrated. It saves a great deal of time and energy to be able to just tidy up an existing nest and get right down to laying eggs and raising young. This also gives them a greater possibility of raising two broods in one season.
The small nest soon becomes very cramped for the growing chicks and they struggle for space.
Yesterday Mike saw two phoebe’s in the barn, perched high in the rafters. Generally solitary, they will tolerate one another during the mating time, but after that they return to their solitary ways, with the female sometime even chasing the male away during the egg laying stage. However, once the chicks hatch, both parents are engaged in the exhaustive activity of finding food and feeding them.
While these birds will not eat the bird seed you put out, they are important as insect eaters. We should be doing all we can to encourage Phoebe’s to hang out and nest near our homes. They are in the group of birds called Flycatchers, because of their technique of catching their prey. They will perch on a fence post or tree branch and suddenly swoop out and upward, hover a moment and then return to their perch. Their bill is wide and somewhat flat and sometimes when they close it a ‘snap’ can be heard. Bees and wasps are favorite items on their menu, so they are a much better means of controlling these sometimes bothersome insects, than using poison sprays.
I walked in our front yard this morning, surveying the trees and gardens, looking for signs of green and swelling buds and out in the pasture I heard the familiar two phrase ‘feebee – feebee’; the second note a stuttering sound and upward in pitch. This two-part song will be repeated over and over throughout the day, as the courtship ritual is in progress. Such a sweet, reassuring sound, reminding us that spring has returned and with it the growing chorus of songbirds
By Kate Crowley