Another sign of spring! I was out watching the regulars—chickadees, nuthatches, blue jays and titmice, when I caught a glimpse of a white belly and a plain dark back as a new bird landed in the tree near me. Then in typical phoebe fashion, he flicked his tail up and down a few times, spread it wide and then was off. In fact, that’s one of the ways to most easily identify a phoebe—the way he’ll flick his tail up and down while he’s perched and then spread out the feathers. My Eastern Phoebe will be back, because he loves to use my pergola as a vantage point as he keeps an eye out for flying insects.
Phoebes are flycatchers and grab their insect meals while on the wing. They’re a solitary bird and you’ll seldom see two together. The females often chase the males off after mating. Phoebes have adapted well to humans and frequently nest in rafters or eaves. I used to have a family of them nesting on top of the light under my covered porch. They often live near water and woods and the beaver brook next to my house may be one reason why I have them.
The Eastern Phoebe is perhaps the most widespread of the flycatchers and lives east of the Rockies. The Black Phoebe is native to the southwest. And Say’s Phoebe resides from the Rockies westward. In fact, the Eastern Phoebe was the very first bird to be banded, when John James Audubon tied a silver thread to its leg early in the 1800’s to track the bird’s return each summer.
Each of the phoebes has a slightly different song, all variations of a “fee-bee” sound with the Eastern Phoebe most closely calling out its own name. Hear the phoebes and listen to each of their songs below!
Because they are insect-eaters, phoebes won’t be seen at your seed feeders. But you may see them in your yard if it’s fairly open and easy for them to spot their prey. If you’d like to feed them, you can try offering mealworms, either live, roasted or canned on an open tray in a location where they can easily see them. If the phoebes don’t eat the mealworms, you can be assured another bird certainly will! However, if the birds know that good food is in your yard, they’ll be more likely to nest there. Phoebes may also be attracted to the water in your birdbath. Good luck looking for phoebes—I hope you have these cute birds helping to keep your yard a lot less buggy!
Written by Roxanne Brune