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Faithful Phoebes

Dear Bird Folks:

Back in March, on the one nice day that we had, I saw a phoebe near my house. After that, the weather turned nasty and I haven’t seen the bird again. Why was this phoebe here so early and do you think it has survived?

– George, Truro


Relax George

Your phoebe is fine, probably. The reason why it was here so early is because that’s when phoebes return, at least some do. Not all birds are wimps, ya know. Just because most of us wish we were anyplace else in March, doesn’t mean that this is such a bad place. Although I do admit that March on Cape Cod can be a test of the survival skills for both humans and birds.

The eastern phoebe is one of those birds that most people have heard of, but know little about. I think it’s because of their name. I think in many parts of this country, having an aunt named Phoebe is a requirement at weddings. The other reason why we are familiar with phoebes is from their calls, or perhaps I should say the calls of chickadees. Many people think that the sweet, clear, two-note springtime “feeee-bee” call of a chickadee is that of a phoebe. Well, they’re wrong. The phoebe does have a “feebee” call, but it is anything but sweet. The real phoebe’s call is harsh and raspy, sounding more like a bird that smokes three packs of Camels a day.

It’s a good thing that phoebes have a distinctive call because the rest of the bird is duller than C-SPAN. Their plumage is drab generic gray-brown with no unusual field marks of any kind. They do, however, have the habit of slowly wagging their tails. This behavior is most often observed when they are sitting on a perch hunting or when they want you to throw a tennis ball for them to chase.

Phoebes are flycatchers. Most of their food is obtained by sitting on an exposed branch and zipping out to snag passing insects. Their diet consists of beetles, grasshoppers and flies. They also eat large numbers of bees and wasps. It amazes me that such a little bird can swallow nasty stinging bees without any ill effects, although it may help explain their raspy voice.

The diet of most flycatchers, as their name would implay, is nearly 100 percent flying insects, but phoebes can also live on small fruit and berries. Their ability to eat berries allows them to arrive on the breeding grounds early, long before warm weather has produced the needed insects. Returning too early has some dangers, but also some major advantages, including getting the best places to nest.

Phoebes don’t build their nests in trees or shrubs like robins or cardinals do; they need to build their nests under overhangs. In the past they have used caves, cliffs or even fallen trees to build their nest under. In recent times they have made use of man-made structures, such as barns, bridges and outhouses. Even with the use of man-made structures and with the help of the best real estate agent, good nesting sites can be in short supply. The first birds to return north in the spring get their pick of the prized nesting sites, which is usually the same place as the year before.

Most songbirds build a brand new nest each year, but because phoebe nest sites are at a premium, the birds will use the same nest year after year, adding only a few minor improvements with each season. Another advantage that phoebes gain by arriving early is that they are able to have two broods in one nesting season. That’s a plus since most of our other nesting flycatchers only have one brood.

Phoebes like to build their nests near lakes and ponds. If you are fortunate enough to live near such an area, you may want to put up a small shelf under your porch or roof overhang. It would be pretty cool to have a phoebe returning to your yard each spring, year after year. The first bird to ever return with a leg band was a phoebe. John James Audubon tied small silver threads to the legs of some young phoebe nestlings; and sure enough, the very next spring, the birds with the silver anklets returned to the same area. Of course, the birds’ parents were disgusted upon seeing their offspring wearing such gaudy jewelry and years of family counseling followed.