Eastern phoebe pair returns to familiar nest location

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young Eastern phoebe not long out of the nest.

A pair of Eastern phoebes is nesting on one of the blades of my front porch ceiling fan. It’s the second time phoebes have selected the fan blades for a nesting site. Nothing was left of the previous nest, which was constructed several years ago. Suddenly, almost overnight, a new nest appeared.

The female phoebe sat diligently on the nest at night, and for the past couple of weeks I’ve avoided turning on the porch light at night so as not to disturb her.

Considering the bright finery worn by some of the more colorful summer birds, the Eastern phoebe can easily escape notice. In comparison with vibrant birds like rose-breasted grosbeak, ruby-throated hummingbird, scarlet tanager and yellow warbler, the Eastern phoebe is downright drab.

Nevertheless, this member of the flycatcher clan has earned itself a favorite spot in the hearts of many a birdwatcher. It’s one of those birds that even beginning birders find surprisingly easy to recognize and identify. While it may not have a dramatic plumage pattern to hint at its identity, the Eastern phoebe is quite at home around human dwellings and comes into close contact with people going about their daily routines. Rather tame — or at least not too bothered by close proximity with humans — the Eastern phoebe has one behaviorism that sets it apart from all the other similar flycatchers. When this bird lands on a perch, it cannot resist a vigorous bobbing of its tail. Every time that a phoebe lands on a perch, it will produce this easily recognized tail wag. It’s a behavior that makes this bird almost instantly recognizable among birders with the knowledge of this behavioral trait.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Young phoebes occupy a nest previously build on a blade of a porch ceiling fan.

The Eastern phoebe is also an enthusiastic springtime singer, and the song it chooses to sing is an oft-repeated two-syllable call “FEE-bee” that provides the inspiration for this bird’s common name.

The Eastern phoebe, known by the scientific name of Sayornis phoebe, has two relatives in the genus Sayornis. The genus is named after Thomas Say, an American naturalist. The Eastern phoebe’s close relatives include the black phoebe and Say’s phoebe. The black phoebe ranges throughout Oregon, Washington and California and as far south as Central and South America. As its name suggests, this bird has mostly black feathers instead of the gray plumage of its relatives. The Say’s phoebe, also named for the man who gave the genus its name, is the western counterpart to the Eastern phoebe.

Since they belong to the vast family of New World flycatchers, it’s probably no surprise that these phoebes feed largely on insects. The birds will often perch patiently until an insect’s flight brings it within easy range. A quick flight from its perch usually allows the skillful bird to return with a morsel snatched on the wing. In the winter months, the Eastern phoebe also eats berries and other small fruit.

Phoebes are fond of nesting on human structures, including culverts, bridges and houses. With the latter, they were once known for their habit of placing their nests under sheltering eaves. At my home, a pair of Eastern phoebes often chooses to nest on the wooden rafters in my family’s garage.  In fact, a pair nested in the garage earlier this year. Phoebes also like to reside near a water source, such as a creek, stream or pond.

I suspect this nesting is a second attempt since it began in mid June. I got my first glimpse of the babies in the best when two fuzzy heads and beaks appeared over the rim of the nest on Thursday, July 7. 

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern phoebe perches on a sign by a trail in Roan Mountain, Tennessee.

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