By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz –
Excerpted in part from my book,
A Journey of Seasons
Along with the more obvious firsts of the year, I am always glad to welcome the return of our nesting pair of Eastern Phoebes (Sayornis phoebe), also known as common flycatchers. These little brownish grey birds are easy to overlook until they begin building their mud and grass nests on porch lights, windowsills and other protrusions beneath the eaves of houses, garages, barns and other structures. I’ve always loved having phoebe’s around to eat bugs and cheer me up, but cleaning the mess they create while building their nests can sometimes be a drag. If you’ve had the same experience, I’ve got a sweet solution to keeping both you and your flycatchers happy.
To begin with, Eastern Phoebes belong to a large group of birds known as flycatchers, renowned for their acrobatic aerial skills while hunting insects on the wing. While there are many small phoebe-like birds, Eastern Phoebes occur exclusively in the eastern third of the US and are often confused with other small flycatcher relatives, such as Eastern Wood Pewees (Contopus virens), Willow Flycatchers (Empidonax traillii) and Least Flycatchers (Empidonax minimus). They are also sometimes confused with unrelated species such as the Tufted Titmouse and Dark-eyed Junco.
Eastern Phoebes are slim, mousy-grey above with a cream-colored breast and belly that may at times have hints of buffy yellow at the edges. They prefer to perch on low, conspicuous branches where they almost compulsively wag their long tails up and down. They are rarely seen on the ground unless gathering nesting materials or landing a difficult to catch insect.
Of course, phoebes have a huge voice that is almost unmistakable. In the spring, we hear them long before we see them. The male often arrives to the breeding ground first and calls to his mate, repeating her name (Phoebe, of course!) over and over. The first part of the call is very high and sounds like a question, while the second part sounds more like a scolding. “Fee-bee? Feee-BE! Fee-bee? Feee-BE!” He will call her loudly and shamelessly until she finally answers him.
They have other calls as well. Click here to listen to the various calls of Eastern Phoebes.
Once she arrives, the pair will call back and forth to each other as they search for an acceptable location to build their sturdy mud nest. It is very important to phoebes that their nest be covered by some type of roof – preferably beneath a rocky outcrop, a bridge, or under the eaves of buildings. They also need some type of ledge or protrusion onto which the nest can be firmly attached to. In the case of houses, phoebes often prefer to nest on porch lights and on exposed rafters beneath porches and carports.
But this is where things often go wrong for phoebes. Their choices of building platforms don’t always jive with the humans they are often closest to, such as the top of a porch light next to the front door, for example.
And while location can sometimes be an issue, usually the main problem comes from the construction of the nest. Phoebes use mud to attach their nest to a structure. It also keeps all of the fine grasses and moss that make up the bulk of the nest together. When the nest is first started, mud usually gets slung all over the side of the house and on the porch below, which causes conflicts.
A couple of years ago, we moved into a new house. When the phoebes started building their nest, my husband decided he didn’t want them messing up the rough wood siding, which would be very hard to clean. After a few days of trying to dissuade them, I offered up another solution.
Why not build a bird house for the phoebes?
My husband looked at me incredulously. “A bird house?” he asked. Well, not a bird house in the traditional sense, but rather a Flycatcher Nesting Platform. It would solve the issue with mud and bird crap on the siding of the house, yet it would be something the phoebes could work with. What I came up with is so simple in both concept and construction, that anyone can do it in less than an hour with scrap wood from the shop.
The plywood acts as a “backer” to the nest, keeping all the wayward mud splashes from ruining your siding, while the 2×4 acts as the nesting platform (replacing your porch light). The 2×2 increases the strength and stability of the platform. To build the nesting platform, you will need:
- One 12” x 12” piece of plywood (larger is ok, but don’t go smaller.)
- One 8” long piece of 2×2
- One 9” long piece of 2×4
- Various nails or screws
- To build, center and attach the 2×2 near the bottom of the the 12” x 12” piece of plywood – about an inch or two from the bottom and centered works well. Mark the board and clamp it if necessary before hammering or screwing together from the back of the plywood. It isn’t necessary to get all the dimensions perfect, but strive to keep the platform level.
- Place the piece of 2×4 directly on top of the 2×2, being sure to turn the face of the board (the part that measures 4”) up and attach securely from the back side of the plywood. This is the ‘platform’ for the nest.
- Hang the nesting platform using two sturdy screws or nails – one on each upper corner of the plywood.
- If you want to stain or paint the nesting perch, you can do it before or after assembly.
There are several things to keep in mind when placing a flycatcher nesting platform. If phoebes have built a nest in the area before, placing the nesting platform close to that spot will help them transition to the new arrangement. You may need to discourage them from their regular spot for a week or so until they pick up on the platform. I tied billowy plastic bags over my porch light as soon as I saw their first attempts there – within days they had begun building on the perch.
Otherwise, follow these guidelines when placing a new nesting platform:
- Phoebes need protection from hot late afternoon sun and heavy rain. Placing nesting platforms under eaves is very important to nesting success.
- Make sure to place the platforms away from vertical pipes, wiring, posts, trellises and other objects that snakes can climb. Black rat snakes are one of the phoebes worst enemies.
- Platforms should be placed between 5’-8’ off the ground. Too low, and the birds are susceptible to cats and other four-legged predators. Too high makes cleaning the area and disposing of old nests difficult.
- Don’t place platforms too close together. While phoebes are pretty social, they are also very protective of their nests. Give them some room from one another.
- Whenever possible, don’t place nests next to very busy areas of the home, such as the front or back doors. Again, phoebes are social, but continual disturbance can force the mother off the nest for long periods of time.
- Whenever possible, try to put the platform in a place where you can watch the daily goings on of these fantastic birds!
If you would like to encourage phoebes to nest at your house, now is the perfect time! This simple, easy to build nesting platform only takes a few minutes to put together and hang. Don’t fret if you miss out on the early spring nesting period – phoebes often have two broods a year!
Good luck and let me know how your nesting season goes!
© 2013 Jill Henderson
Set in the rugged heart of the Ozark mountains, A Journey of Seasons is memoir, back-to-the-land handbook and nature guide rolled into one. Henderson’s 20-years of living off the land and foraging in the wilderness shines in this cyclopedic work filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor. This is one journey you don’t want to miss.
Available in the Show Me Oz Bookstore
Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill’s work has also appeared in The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.