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Speaking of Nature

Speaking of Nature: The eastern phoebe

Phoebes have been of special interest to me ever since I moved into my red house. Prior to that I never had the physical structures in any of my previous homes or apartments that would entice a phoebe to nest. Phoebes like little sheltered nooks under the eves of houses, or inside garages, barns or sheds. But just because I never had them nesting nearby does not mean I wasn’t unfamiliar with them at all.

Phoebes were regular patients of mine when I was fully involved in wildlife rehabilitation. It’s this habit of nesting on man-made structures that puts phoebes in close proximity to people and their pets, especially cats. Domestic cats can cause terrible losses when fledglings are just starting to leave the nest and although some cat owners would suggest that their cats were just “playing” with the birds, most were aware that the cats were not being friendly.

So, it was not uncommon to have at least one bunch of little phoebes brought in for care. These wonderful little creatures were always a welcome addition to the menagerie because they were so engaging. Unlike many other species of birds, which seem to be vaguely aware of your presence, young phoebes keep their bright eyes riveted to you at all times, but this is just the nature of phoebes.

Members of the flycatcher family, phoebes make a living by using a hunting method called “hawking.” This involves the bird taking up a position on a prominent perch and then scanning the area for something edible. It could be any of the flying insects buzzing around on a summer day as well as a big, juicy grasshopper that has moved enough to be noticed. Once the phoebe spots a potential meal, it will launch itself into the air and pursue its quarry. If the bird misses, it will go right back to the perch and resume its hunt.

As a result of this hunting technique, phoebe chicks have the amusing ability to lock onto a person and track his movements. This makes perfect sense when the person is bringing food, but there are also times when a person might just be walking by while doing other things. In such circumstances, it was always a bit peculiar to look over and see a young phoebe staring at me intently, as if sizing me up as a potential meal.

So I was quite happy indeed when the previous owner of my house gave me a tour of the place and mentioned that “birds” are always trying to build nests on the floodlights by the driveway. In my mind it was pretty clear that this was the work of phoebes, which I saw as a good thing. I then had to suppress a shudder when the former owner explained how easy it was to knock the nests down with the handle of a shovel.

As soon as the keys changed hands, I immediately set about the task of fixing this situation. The phoebes were interested in the upper surface of a junction box that supported two floodlights. While quite doable, I could also see where this could cause a little trouble because the lights were in the middle of a very high traffic area. So I made a little shelf specifically for the phoebes in an even more sheltered spot by the front door.

They found this shelf within a day or two and ever since that time, they have nested right there by my front door. From one year to the next they have had varying success, but there have always been phoebes in residence. This year, however, has been the most successful year for phoebes that I’ve ever had.

It started on April 4 when I noticed the first phoebe of the year. There is always some speculation about when they will arrive, but it always seems to happen like clockwork. This year they appeared almost precisely on the day that I predicted. This was still too early for nesting, however, so I had to wait. I had also put up a new nesting shelf because I had just had the house painted. This also gave me the chance to increase the size of the shelf a little bit, which turned out to be a really good idea.

The nest went in quickly. I don’t have dates recorded in my journal, but I do remember that we went from no nest to complete nest in just a couple days. By May 5, there was an egg in the new nest and when I checked again on May 9, I found three. At one point, I discovered that a cowbird had swapped its egg for one of the phoebes, which left only two phoebes for this first clutch.

By May 31, there were two phoebe chicks in the nest and by June 10 those two little birds had fledged. The real question in my mind was (as it always is), would they try again? I was particularly interested in this idea because somewhere around May 8 I found a dead adult phoebe on the porch below the nest. Sometimes females can become egg bound, which is basically like being constipated with eggs, and this can be fatal. I have no idea why the adult died, but the small clutch of two eggs seemed a mercy for the survivor.

My question was answered on June 19 when I discovered a single white egg in the nest. I didn’t want to become too much of a pest and drive the birds away and I was also very busy with finals and the last days of school, so it wasn’t until about a week later that I checked on the nest and discovered seven eggs. The largest clutch that a phoebe is capable of is eight, but I can’t imagine the chaos that eight young phoebes could cause. Seven is a huge number and I was concerned that the extra-large platform I installed might not be big enough.

The chicks hatched on July 6 and by July 13 the baby phoebes were “making noise.” This starts out as a little “peep” now and then, but it evolves into what I call the “roar of the phoebe,” which is a long, drawn out laryngitic scream. When seven chicks were in full voice, it was quite an earful.

The really sensitive time arrives when the chicks reach the end of their 16-day growth period. This is when an accidental movement can scare the young birds into bursting out of the nest before they are quite ready. Many other songbirds will fledge at 14 days, but because phoebes nest in overhangs, there is some prudence to having them be a bit more mature before they take flight for there is no going back.

The big day came on July 22 when I noticed a phoebe chick sitting on the deck below its nest. This baby was very small and was sitting there oblivious to the potential dangers around it. I had fashioned a set of guardrails that I retrofit to the nest shelf to prevent a chick from accidentally tumbling out of the nest, but I couldn’t stop one from jumping. I tried to carefully put the chick back, but this resulted in an explosion of phoebes. There was no turning back now.

Still fearful that the local jays, crows and grackles would simply scoop them up out of the driveway, I decided to intervene. I collected up every chick I could find and placed them in high perches in lilac bushes and in the cottonwood tree. My hands were instantly crawling with mites, but I kept working until every chick was safe off the ground. I even managed to get a photo or two before retreating inside the house to let the parents take care of them.

I was quite anxious for their safety, but I realize there was nothing further I could do. They would survive or not without my help. But I did get a little extra boost of positive energy on July 26. I was making breakfast and I heard a little scratching at one of the kitchen windows. When I investigated, I discovered a young phoebe looking in at me. I have no doubt that the bird was just curiously exploring its surroundings, but I was glad to once again be the subject of great scrutiny by a young phoebe.

Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. His Speaking of Nature column runs weekly in The Recorder, except for the first Thursday of each month, which is when his Kids and Critters column for young readers appears. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com

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