Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Eastern phoebes are the first of the flycatchers to migrate back to Wisconsin in the spring. © Michael Drummond

Eastern phoebes are the first of the flycatchers to migrate back to Wisconsin in the spring.
© Michael Drummond

April 2009

Construction season

Eastern phoebes are sizing up and plastering their nests right now.

Anita Carpenter

Never mind the thermometer. The birds show us that spring is winging its way north. Wave after wave of avian migrants return predictably as the weeks slip by: horned larks in February; grackles, red-winged blackbirds, robins, killdeer and sandhill cranes in early March. From late March into early April, the earliest of the insecteaters arrive with eastern phoebes, the hardiest member of the flycatcher family, leading the way.

Although the seven-inch eastern phoebes often perch in the open on outer twigs of trees and shrubs, they are not that easy to detect as they are dressed in the same modest colors as the tree branches. Their plumage? A darkish gray-brown with black tails and nearly black feathers covering the head and face. Their alertblack eyes and a thick, flattened black bill fade into a black head. A white chin and pale, buffy white belly break up the uniform dark color. My overall impression when observing phoebes is their smoothness for they have no distinctive wing bars, no bright gaudy colors and no bold markings or face patterns.

If drab colors donít draw your attention, neither will their behavior. Eastern phoebes are gentle, non-aggressive birds that perch quietly and watch the world pass by until an appetizing insect flies into view. Then the bird lifts into motion and pursues the insect as only an agile flycatcher will, plucking the flying morsel from the air. Then itís back to the perch to wait. As the bird sits quietly, a few clues help in identification. The plumpish bird appears flat-headed. Its perching posture is very erect, no slouching or forwardlean for this bird! Although it sits motionless, every few moments the phoebe slowly pumps its tail, a characteristic behavior for this flycatcher.

When the bird vocalizes, it calls out its name in a low buzzing tone; a burry sound as if it has something caught in its throat, calling phoe-bee with the accent on the first syllable. Donít confuse it with the cleartoned, whistled phoe-bee call of the black-capped chickadee.

Traditionally, eastern phoebes, Sayornis phoebe, nested in recesses of cliffs and rock ledges along streams. Some still do that, but they are equally at home in manmade recesses and ledges, although nearby water may still be a factor in nest site selection. Any flat surface under an overhang is acceptable. Porch beams, rafters, porch lights, bridge girders and piers are all fair game to nesting phoebes who adjust their nest size to the available space. On a larger flat area, they build a 4 Ĺ-inch diameter cup-shaped nest. In a narrower space, the mud is plastered to a wall and becomes semi-circular. Itís a wonder that the pair can build a sound, secure nest on a shelf that looks precarious. In fact, if the nest site proves to be a good one, the eastern phoebes may build a new nest right on top of the old one in subsequent years.

The bird pair gets very busy in April making many trips to collect building materials of grass and mud. Once it is solid, the nest is lined with finer grasses and feathers. On average, the female lays five white eggs and incubates them for about 16 days. The young are fed insects and fledge about 15-16 days after hatching. Nesting around homes, garages, barns, cottages and hunting shacks increases the chance of encounters between people and phoebes. The birds, at least, take these in stride. If disturbed, a phoebe will slip off the nest and wait nearby, perhaps moving from perch to perch remaining vigilant and flicking its tail. Once the "intruder" leaves, the bird quickly returns, but it is not fiercely protective or aggressive. Phoebes are so accommodating and patient that I sometimes apologize for entering their space during their brief nesting time and I quickly leave so they may return.

Once the first brood is raised and gone, the pair nests a second time laying eggs for the second brood in June. The youngsters fledge in early to mid-July. Once nesting is over, the phoebes start to stock up for the impending flight south. Their exodus begins in August as insect numbers start to decline. Phoebes leave quietly and are mostly gone by mid-September although a few hardy individuals may linger into October. They spend the winter in the warm, insect-rich southern United States and Mexico before nature urges them north once again in spring.

Anita Carpenter marks the comings and goings of birds, bugs and plants year-round from her home in Oshkosh.