Jill Henderson, who resides in Saltville, Virginia, emailed me recently with a question about a bird nesting atop a column on her back porch.
Jill provided me with four photographs attached to her email that greatly assisted in identifying the nesting birds on her back porch.
“It seems to enjoy the water in my pool,” she added. Indeed, a couple of the photos showed the bird perched poolside on one of her lawn chairs.
The nesting birds turned out to be Eastern phoebes, which are a member of the extensive family of birds known as “tyrant flycatchers.” The information about the pool assisted with the identification. Phoebes show an affinity for water, whether the source is a creek, pond or even a residential swimming pool.
Considering the bright finery worn by some of the more colorful spring arrivals, it’s understandable if the return of Eastern phoebes escape immediate notice each year. In comparison with vibrant birds like rose-breasted grosbeak, ruby-throated hummingbird, scarlet tanager and yellow warbler, the Eastern phoebe is downright drab with its gray-black and dingy white plumage. 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 after a bit of study. 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 behavior 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 a phoebe lands on a perch, it will produce this easily recognized tail dip and rise. It’s a behavior that makes this bird almost instantly recognizable among birders with a knowledge of the trait.
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.
The phoebes belong to the the world’s largest family of birds, which is known collectively as the “tyrant flycatchers.” With more than 400 species, this family of birds consists of species known as tyrannulets, elaenias, pygmy tyrants, tody-flycatchers, spadebills, flatbills, attilas, kingbirds and kiskadees.
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 can even feed on poison ivy berries without risk of ill effects.
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. Although the species is migratory, a few hardy individuals will usually try to tough out winters in the region. The others that depart in the autumn will migrate to the southern United States and as far south as Central America. On some rare occasions, Eastern phoebes have flown far off their usual course and ended up in western Europe. I can usually count on Eastern phoebes returning to my home in early March, making them one of the first migrants to return each year. Their arrival rarely goes unnoticed since the males tend to start singing persistently as soon as they arrive.
John James Audubon, an early naturalist and famed painter of North America’s birds, conducted an experiment with some young phoebes that represents the first-ever bird banding in the United States of America. His novel experiment, which he carried out in 1803, involved tying some silver thread to the legs of the phoebes he captured near his home in Pennsylvania. He wanted to answer a question he had about whether birds are faithful to home locations from year to year. The following year, Audubon again captured two phoebes and found the silver thread had remained attached to their legs. Today, ornithologists still conduct bird banding to gather information on birds and the mystery of their migrations. So, that pair of phoebes that returned to your backyard this spring — they just might be the same ones that have spent past summer seasons providing you with an enlightening glimpse into their lives.
Jill reminded me that she had written to me a few years back and had mentioned difficulty with hummingbird feeders and bears. “I am happy to report that so far this summer, there have been no incidents,” she wrote.
Her email also reminded me of a recent surprise. I awoke recently to the sound of a disturbance outside my bedroom window. I figured rambunctious squirrels were raiding my feeders. I raised the blind and surprised myself and a young black bear. Standing on his hind legs, the bear had managed to hook its paws on one of my feeders that hangs about four feet off the ground. The bear, probably a yearling based on its size, fled the scene, which probably spared my feeder.
If you have a question, wish to comment on a column or share an observation, email me at email@example.com. If you want help with identification, photographs definitely help.