We all have our favorite local birds. Perhaps you love the antics of chickadees at your feeder, or the sight of a bright-red cardinal amongst the trees. I’d like to introduce you to my favorite bird of North America, the eastern phoebe.
The eastern phoebe is a favorite among birdwatchers, and when you hear its call for the first time around mid-March, you know that spring is here!
The eastern phoebe belongs to the group of flycatchers, and is a small, brownish-gray bird with dark gray-brown upperparts and slightly darker wings and tail. Their underparts are pale with a hint of olive-brown or yellow on their sides and breast.
Since there are so many species of flycatchers, there are certain markers that make the eastern phoebe easy to identify. For one, when perched, they do a gentle tail-wag. Also, their soft “fee-bee” song, like they’re calling their own name, is very recognizable.
The good news is that due to their very high tolerance of human activities, they are a species of least concern, and their populations are doing very well.
It’s a great time to introduce you to this species, since you are most likely hearing their joyful songs in your backyard this time of year (depending on where you live).
Let us take a deeper look into their life history, as well as introduce some tips that you can use to increase their presence around your home.
The First Banded Bird
In 1804, the eastern phoebe was the first bird to be banded. John James Audubon, American ornithologist, naturalist, and artist who was known for his studies and detailed depictions of North American birds, used a single piece of silver thread and attached it to a phoebe’s leg, to track and monitor its return in future years.
This research would lead to ornithologists using methods such as banding to monitor bird populations in the future.
Continuing to study the species, Audubon’s depictions of the eastern phoebe in his artwork were true to life. In one photo, Audubon illustrates both birds “with their crests raised in mating excitement, perching on the Sea Island cotton plant.”
As the male arrives to the breeding ground, he sings a courting song to his potential mate. If she approves, the female will raise her wings in acceptance.
According to the Cornell Lab’s “All about Birds”, the oldest Eastern phoebe was at least 10 years and 4 months old. It was banded in Iowa in 1979, and was later found in Alberta in 1989.
A Phoebe’s Life History Traits
The eastern phoebe breeds in eastern North America, and then migrates to wintering grounds stretching from the southeastern United States all the way to southern Mexico. Being one of the first migrants to return to the breeding grounds once spring arrives, eastern phoebes will stay for around six months or more.
Although they will build their nests in high branches and even holes in trees, one may commonly find their nests in places that have very firm support, such as barn cellars, sheds, and even under bridges.
In fact, according to All about Birds by the Cornell Lab or ornithology, the uses of these structures allowed the eastern phoebe to tolerate the many landscape changes made by humans.
Their nests are usually made of green moss and mud, and they may re-use their nest a second time during the breeding season, or may even build a new nest. The eastern phoebe will lay anywhere from three to seven pure white eggs.
The eastern phoebe’s diet consists mostly of moths that they catch in mid-air (a common trait of flycatchers), as well as other insects like spiders, millipedes and grasshoppers. They also will occasionally eat small fruit.
Being able to adjust and co-exist with humans as well as other animals has led to a lack of shyness in phoebes. In 1922, researcher Clinton G. Abbott recalls the story of a female phoebe who had built her nest close to his family home, stating, “within a week, she had succeeded in completely readjusting herself to the new conditions. From her original shy and timid self, she was metamorphosed into quite a different type of bird, stolidly remaining seated upon her nest regardless of sudden noises or the movements of people.”
Other Cool Facts about the Eastern Phoebe
The adaptions that eastern phoebe’s have developed when it comes to their life-history traits is extraordinary, but here are a few more additional fun facts:
- Although the eastern phoebe is monogamous, meaning that they stay with the same mate for life, they are “loners”. They rarely come in contact with other phoebes, and even mated pairs do not spend much time together, except for occasional roosting in early pair formation.
- Although the Eastern phoebe is one of the first birds in its range to return to the breeding grounds in spring, it is also one of the last to leave in the fall. They will return to winter quarters around the same time when other migrant songbirds do, in September and early October. Additionally, their migration times have stayed the same in the last 100 years.
- The Brown-headed cowbird is one of the biggest threats to eastern phoebe nests. Known as brood parasites, cowbirds will replace the eggs in the eastern phoebe’s nest with their own.
Backyard Tips to Attract Phoebes
Since the Eastern Phoebe is a species of flycatcher, and mostly eats insects, it will not visit backyard feeders filled with seeds. Helpful backyard tips from Exploring Birds suggests having a yard or garden encourages insects, which will therefore encourage Eastern Phoebes.
They favor flowers and vines like the Virginia creeper and wild grape, and shrubs like the American elderberry. Adding a perch of some kind near the garden can also help, as phoebes like to fly from perch to perch in search of insects. Also, consider adding a birdbath.