Show Me Oz – People sometimes laugh when I tell them that I always know when spring is about to dawn on our Ozark homestead – even if it’s freezing outside. It’s not the weather, or the slight budding of plants that clue me in. And it’s not the warmth of the sun or my local weatherman, either. No, the way I know that spring is on it’s way is when I hear the first shrill song of the Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe). This slim, mousy-grey flycatcher with a creamy-colored belly and a big voice has a penchant for perching on low, leafless branches and compulsively wagging its long tail up and down. And it’s one bird that every gardener should hope for.
We often hear the phoebes long before we see them. Their distinctive call can be heard for great distances. Often the male will be the first to arrive in early spring and call to his mate, repeating her name, first as a high question and then as a direct scolding, over and over until she answers him, “Fee-bee? Feee-Be! Fee-bee? Feee-Be!” He will try every perch in the yard from which to project his lovely voice; first the front, then the back, then on the peak of the roof, out to the mailbox and so on, all day long. He will call her shamelessly until she finally answers him. Listen to the phoebe’s call here.
Once his mate arrives, the pair will call loudly back and forth as they search for an acceptable location to build their sturdy mud and moss or grass nest. It is important to the phoebe that their nest be covered by some type of roof and the pair will often select a location beneath a rock outcrop or bridge, or under the eaves of roofs. During breeding they will repeatedly call to one another in tones of gentle reassurance.
It is easy to tell when something exciting has happened in the phoebe’s lives because the calls become numerous and repetitively shrill with urgency. When very excited, phoebes use a very high-pitched trill that sounds similar to a referee’s whistle rolling up and down the scale. More often, it is the female that uses this call. We usually hear it just after she has laid her eggs and again when her chicks hatch. In between these events, both parents remain silent.
I have read that pairs of eastern phoebes spend little time together after their eggs are laid, but we have not found this to be true at all. The pair we have hosted for many years now obviously work together to build the mud and moss nest and once the female begins incubation, the male waits nearby. He is never very far away from his mate and takes his job of chasing away potential invaders very seriously.
Once the chicks hatch, the male helps to feed and care for them. And when the time comes them to fledge, both parents flutter excitedly around the nest, urging the young ones to take the leap for the first time. Over the next few days, the baby birds remain in low shrubs and trees as they learn to fly and both parents feed them and keep track of their whereabouts. To say that the male is absent during breeding is, in my many years of close observation, absolutely false.
Indeed, one year Dean and I witnessed the sweetest thing. The first egg had hatched and the mamma phoebe was beyond excited. She trilled loudly until the male arrived at the nest, whereupon they stood together on the lip of the nest peering in at the new little fledgling. The daddy bird could hardly keep from looking at the newborn, even after the mamma flew off in search of food. He cocked his head from side to side and gingerly moved around the edge of the nest to get a better look. After a few minutes, he gently reached into the nest and, with his beak, grasped the spent shell from which the chick had just emerged and flew off with it some distance before dropping it to the ground. This action helps prevent predators from locating the nest by scent.
Since our first encounter with phoebes, we have moved several times – always managing to attract a pair of flycatcher who don’t mind our almost constant presence. By the nature of our human lives, we inadvertently provide shelter for phoebes to nest in, whether that be a tool shed, barn, porch light or other man-made structure that provides some bit of perch onto which they can affix their nests and a bit of an overhang to shelter it from the rain.
Of course, the biggest problem people have with flycatcher’s is that their nests are messy – both during construction, when mud is flung about and bits of moss and grass fall to the ground and again when the chicks gain some size and begin to defecate off the side of the nest. You can deter flycatchers by covering the area you do not want them to nest in with plastic or other contrivances, but the easiest way to lure them away from those areas is by providing them with a more alluring alternative. I developed an easy-to-make nesting platform that the phoebes often prefer over places like porch lights. You can read more about that in my article, Sweet Nesting Solution for Flycatchers.
The wonder of having a nesting pair of flycatchers around to observe and enjoy is made even greater by the fact that they consume an immeasurable number of insects every single day – a true friend to the gardener and orchardist. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Flying insects make up the majority of the Eastern Phoebe’s diet. Common prey include wasps, beetles, dragonflies, butterflies and moths, flies, midges, and cicadas; they also eat spiders, ticks, and millipedes, as well as occasional small fruits or seeds.”
So, when you hear the first call of the Eastern Phoebe at the end of winter you will know that spring is on your heels. And if you’re sharp, you’ll have time to provide or ready an area where they can nest, raise their young, eat a plethora of annoying insects, and entertain you all at the same time.
© 2016 Jill Henderson Feel free to share with a link back to the original article.
Filled to the brim with colorful stories, wild walks, botanical musings, and a just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor A personal and inspiring tale of homesteading in the Ozark backwoods by noted author, naturalist and plant organic gardener, Jill Henderson.
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 is a contributing author for Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.