Eastern Phoebe

Early spring has arrived!  Here’s a few posts I’ve already done on this topic: Forests before spring, Early Spring, and Early Spring Bird Activity.   As far as early spring 2014 in central Ohio goes, we seem to be a bit behind in the green growing things department, but the early spring birds are starting to show.

One of those early spring arrivals I saw last week was a flycatcher.  Flycatchers (more properly, Tyrant Flycatchers) are  the largest bird family on earth, with 400 species occurring in the Western Hemisphere.  Generally speaking, these birds are drab insect-eaters that frequently make short flights from a perch to catch insects on the wing.  Here’s some images I took 4 days ago:

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This bird is an Eastern Phoebe:

One of our most familiar eastern flycatchers, the Eastern Phoebe’s raspy “phoebe” call is a frequent sound around yards and farms in spring and summer. These brown-and-white songbirds sit upright and wag their tails from prominent, low perches. They typically place their mud-and-grass nests in protected nooks on bridges, barns, and houses, which adds to the species’ familiarity to humans. Hardy birds, Eastern Phoebes winter farther north than most other flycatchers and are one of the earliest returning migrants in spring.

You may think that this small bird is rather drab, and it is, but it has a great call: fee-bee!  fee-bee!  When I hear this call, I know that spring is definitely here.

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In addition, this bird is fun to watch, catching insects on the wing, then flying back to its perch.  What a great neighbor, reducing the bug population.

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Fun historical fact: This species was the first bird ever banded in North America, in 1804 by John James Audubon.  Audubon tied a silver thread around a Phoebe’s leg in order to identify the same individual in the future.

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This bird is most often seen along wood edges.  Wood edges are great places to see a variety of wildlife, being the boundary between two different ecosystems.  Notice the yellowish tinge to its breast feathers.

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Phoebes tend to be loners.  You’ll see the occasional mated pair, but the bulk of the time they are just fine by themselves, catching insects.

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Here’s a pair.  These birds will often nest under bridges or under the eaves on outbuildings; last year I saw one nest on top of a light fixture attached to a park restroom.  They don’t mind being in the area with people, though they’re still a bit shy of us.

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Here’s a Phoebe with nesting material.  I’ve seen moss used in their grass and mud nests.  Another fun fact: unlike most birds, Phoebes will re-use old nests.

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Here’s a mother Phoebe that has a nest built on a rock wall.  It was nice to get a glimpse of how they nested before we came along and built buildings and bridges!

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Not only do Phoebes show up early in spring- mid-March is the typical arrival date here in central Ohio- but Phoebes will stay later in the autumn than other flycatchers, too.  They’ve been spotted in the area clear up to December.  Other flycatchers prefer warmer weather, obviously.  This can be somewhat risky, because very cold weather will ground flying insects, but it also allows for an earlier jump on breeding territory in the spring. Edit: luckily, these birds will eat a bit of fruit or seeds if necessary when insects are scarce.

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While they may not be much to look at, these birds do us a favor by eating multitudes of flying insects.  And their distinctive calls are truly welcome after a cold winter.