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Nature’s Ways: Eastern Phoebe — the Under-Bridge Dweller

After a long winter, I always look forward to the day when I can step outside and hear the loud and familiar “FEE-bee” call of the eastern phoebe. This spring it happened on March 25. The previous year, it was on March 23. Birds are not quite as precise as calendars, but pretty darn close.

Each spring, eastern phoebes — Sayornis phoebe — migrate north from the southern United States and Mexico to their nesting territories in the northeast. Records show that they arrive in Centre County in late March or early April.

Their return is marked by many birders, including me, as a true sign of spring.

Eastern phoebes are members of the flycatcher family and, as the family name suggests, they mainly feed on insects that they catch on the wind.

They have perches, often over streams, where they watch for flying insects. They also forage in the foliage or on the ground.

Phoebes are good fliers, which they would have to be in order to snatch insects in mid-air.

Most years, I have three other flycatcher species on my Bald Eagle Valley property the least flycatcher, the great crested flycatcher and the wood pewee. Some years, I also host a pair of Acadian flycatchers.

Having phoebes around your house is good for insect control. I have constructed five platforms on the side of my house specifically for phoebes.

It is rewarding to see them successfully fledge a clutch of young from a nest that was constructed on one of your platforms.

Ohio naturalist and author Julie Zickefoose likens having a phoebe nest on one’s property as the sign of a welcoming home.

As evidence for her attraction to the species, she named her daughter Phoebe.

The eastern phoebe measures 6-1/2 to 7 inches in length and is a basic gray-brown in color, with a lighter breast. Sometimes, a touch of yellow shows on the lower breast. Their head is usually a darker brown than the rest of their body.

When perching, the bird wags its tail up and down, providing an easy way to distinguish it from most other brownish birds.

Although the phoebe has a number of songs, the male most frequently calls its name – “ FEE-bee, FEE-bee” — over and over.

These flycatchers are quick to pair and set up housekeeping each spring, and they often nest in the same spots year after year.

Traditionally, phoebes nested near the entrances of caves and on cliffs, but their habits changed with the coming of civilization.

An eastern phoebe tending to its nest. Photo by Mark Nale | For The Gazette

They now select bridges and ledges on the sides of buildings as preferred nesting sites, and their population has increased.

Almost every bridge with a suitable ledge underneath will have a phoebe nest.

I saw and heard phoebes when I visited Taughannock Falls State Park in southern New York — there, they nest on the towering cliffs along the beautiful falls trail. Here in Pennsylvania, I rarely see a phoebe unless there is a bridge, building or other suitable manmade structure nearby.

Phoebes become very tolerant of humans. Biologist Bernd Heindrich shared his insight into the near-tame phoebes that nested by his home each year.

“They may not only be adapting to new situations but also benefiting from the human presence,” Heindrich wrote.

Phoebe nests are sometimes parasitized by brown-headed cowbirds.

The female cowbird deposits one egg to be hatched and raised by phoebe parents as their own. Some evidence suggests that phoebes nesting at manmade sites have a lower rate of cowbird parasitism than those selecting natural sites.

Nests are constructed mainly of mud and moss and are often built in precarious locations, such as on top of floodlights or on ledges as narrow as one inch. A phoebe’s clutch size is usually four or five eggs, with incubation lasting 16 days.

Both parents are kept quite busy catching insects to feed their growing nestlings. The young leave the nest after just 16 days of care. Phoebes nest twice a year, with the young from their second brood usually fledging the nest in July.

Volunteers participating in field work for the first Pennsylvania’s Breeding Bird Atlas (1983-89) located the species in every county, covering nearly 90 percent of the survey blocks. Centre County has the privilege of being the only county reporting phoebes as “confirmed nesters” in 100 percent of its survey quadrants.

While many bird species are declining, phoebe numbers increased in Pennsylvania during the second Breeding Bird Atlas (2004-09). They were located in 95 percent of the survey blocks. In 2010, the eastern phoebe’s population of singing males was estimated to be 315,000. They were least numerous in and near Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Although that is old data, according to the National Audubon Society, their current numbers have been stable. Sharp declines were noted in 1996, 2003 and 2007, but the population recovered quickly. Partners in Flight estimates that the global breeding population of eastern phoebes to be 32 million, with at least 76 percent spending part of the year in the United States.

Consider adding a ledge on the side of your house or garage about six inches under the soffit. You will be rewarded by the phoebe’s cheerful call and a decreased insect population.

This column appears in the June 17-23 edition of The Centre County Gazette.