The Tail Wagger Returns

I recently heard a raspy “feee-beee,” one of the sure sounds of spring—it was an Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) singing and just back from its wintering grounds in the southeastern United States.

It’s not a problem that Eastern Phoebes look rather drab in color, because they help you realize spring is here. Photo by Manjithkaini at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Eastern Phoebe is a member of the Tyrant Flycatcher family, the Tyrannidae. It has a grayish back with a darker gray head and whitish belly. The best way to tell it apart from the similar Eastern Wood Pewee (Contopus virens) is by its behavior. Phoebes constantly wag their tails up and down.

I have often wondered why flycatchers that hunt flying insects in mid-air return so early in the year, in late winter and early spring. The weather is so fickle then, often changing from sunny 60°F (15°C) days to blustery storms with ice and snow. How do they survive when there aren’t many flying insects around?

A clue might be where they like to nest. These birds once only nested in places like the natural shelves created by rocky crevices in ravines. Humans-created ledges, such as the eaves of barns and other buildings, as well as under bridges, are perfect nesting places for them. These are also precisely where insects and spiders go to get out of the wind and weather. Phoebes take advantage of this by gleaning such prey from the beams and walls. When the weather warms, the birds hunt in sunnier locations and when insects are flying. Flycatchers, including the Eastern Phoebe, are known for “hawking” or “sallying”—flying out suddenly from a perch, grabbing a flying insect, then returning to the same place. Their prey includes beetles, flies, grasshoppers, bees, and wasps.

Looks like it’s getting a bit crowded! These chicks are about ready to fledge. Notice the nest is sitting on a pipe under an eave. Photo by Fredlyfish4, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Eastern Phoebes, because they often nest along forest edges, are particularly vulnerable to nest predation by the Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater), a nest brood parasite. Once a female cowbird spots a phoebe nest with eggs, she’ll lay her own egg in it. The phoebe parents won’t recognize this egg as different from their own. When the eggs hatch, the much larger cowbird chick will get more food, decreasing the phoebe chicks’ chances of successfully fledging.

Notice the cowbird egg that was left in this clutch of phoebe eggs. Photo by Galawebdesign, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Despite this, Eastern Phoebe populations are stable now, which might have to do with their willingness to nest on human structures. They also adapt by feeding on fruit from plants such as Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), Wild Grape (Vitis spp.), Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quincefolia), Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), and more, particularly during the winter months and when first returning north.

Phoebe pairs often return to the same nest every year and just refurbish it. This was discovered by noted naturalist and painter John James Audubon. In 1803, Audubon put silver thread on the legs of a brood of chicks near his home in Pennsylvania. The following year he captured two of these chicks that had returned. This is the first documented case of a banded bird returning. Banding today is an important way for scientists to learn more about bird life histories and migratory routes. Perhaps the phoebes you see in your neighborhood are old friends that come back year after year.

Published by Jim Sirch

Jim Sirch is the author of Beyond Your Back Door, a weekly blog about nature in your neighborhood. He is also Education Coordinator for the Yale Peabody Museum, a UConn Master Gardener and board member of his local land trust. As a trained naturalist, he brings a deep understanding of geology, plants and wildlife and how they interact within a particular ecosystem. He holds a B.S in Forestry from West Virginia University, a B.S. from Miami University in Science Education; and an M.S. in Environmental Studies Administration from Antioch University. He is also the 2014 Sigmund Abeles Award recipient from the Connecticut Science Teachers and Supervisors Association for outstanding science teaching and professional development.

8 thoughts on “The Tail Wagger Returns

  1. Okay, now thinking of starting a “go fund me” page to get glasses for birds so that they can tell the difference between their own eggs and cowbird eggs. Sigh.


  2. Hi Jim, throughout winter I hear a feeeee-bee call that I’ve been told are chickadees. Sometimes I whistle back to them and it keeps them going! But, how would I tell the difference between the chickadee and phoebe call?


      1. Jim, I had the same problem as Laurie – and was helped by listening to both the chickadee and phoebe recordings on the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s app, called Merlin. Would you recommend that app, either in general or specifically a way of learning about bird calls?


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