Speaking of Nature: Reunited — The return of the eastern phoebe

  • This female eastern phoebe was photographed in the cottonwood tree right outside my front door. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON

  • The new nest as of Wednesday, April 27. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON

Published: 5/1/2022 4:01:37 PM
Modified: 5/1/2022 4:00:04 PM

It is with the greatest feeling of joy that I announce the return of a dear friend of mine. I am delighted to the point of being ecstatic that a female eastern phoebe has once again taken up residence near my front door. This is a story that has been years in the making, however, I really must start at the beginning if you are to truly appreciate the situation.

I moved into my current home in July of 2005. My driveway is on the northeast corner of the house and it comes down a gentle slope to the garage and the front door. It is at this same corner of the house that the deck wraps around from the east side of the house and connects to the front door, thus creating a little alcove where the front door is located. On a rainy day, I can sit in this spot and never get wet.

On the side of the extreme northeast corner of the house there is a pair of floodlights that illuminate the driveway and it is here that I noticed the fragments of a nest. Made predominantly of mud and moss, this was clearly the nest of an eastern phoebe. It was also sadly clear that the previous owner of the home had not appreciated the presence of the phoebe and had intentionally knocked the nest down. I thought that this was a terrible shame and I resolved to remedy the situation the following year.

So, in April of 2006 I built the simplest of platforms in what I thought was a much better spot. My front door faces due east and the side of the house faces due north. Right where these two surfaces meet I attached a flat board into the corner so that there was an attractive nesting platform about six inches below the soffit. This seemed to be an extremely cozy little spot and the phoebes immediately responded to it.

In no time at all I noticed a lot of activity near the front door, which was made easier by the fact that there is a small window that looks out from the kitchen onto the driveway. This is one of those windows that extends out from the house with a crank so that the opening points back toward the frond door and reflects sounds from that spot back into the house. So, when the window is open on a quiet morning I can hear all sorts of noises coming from the phoebe nest. Private little noises made by the female as she builds her nest and then later I can hear the begging sounds made by chicks.

It was a wonderful setup that brought tremendous joy and entertainment for 13 years until it was disrupted in 2020. That was the year that I had the siding on my house replaced. The workers arrived in April, which is the beginning of the nesting season. The phoebe went about her normal routine because the workers started on the west side of the house. By the time they finished the west and south sides the female had a nest with eggs in it. Then, inevitably, the workers started on the east side, which included the small section of wall that wrapped around to the front door. There was no helping it. The nest was destroyed.

A little part of me died when I found tiny phoebe eggs broken in the driveway. As soon as the workers were done I quickly put a new nesting platform up in the old location, but the female had been so discouraged that she never returned. In 2021 I build a new and improved nesting platform and I even included a small engraving that said, “Welcome Phoebes 2021.” Unfortunately, no one showed even the slightest interest in the platform that year. I truly feared that the relationship had been permanently broken.

But then things changed a week ago. The phoebes had arrived back at my house on March 20, which was far earlier than normal. I saw them around, but the daily check for activity at the nesting platform showed nothing time and time again. Then, on the afternoon of April 24, I noticed that there were little splatters of mud on the side of the house. I looked up onto the platform and discovered that fresh mud and moss had been deposited onto the horizontal surface in a little circle. My heart began to sing!

As of last Wednesday the little circle had been built up into a proper bowl-shaped nest. The phoebes were back. More work may be done on the construction of the nest, but at some point I will have to grab a mirror so I can do a daily egg check. Once that first perfect little white egg (about the size of a small jellybean) appears, I will know that the female is truly committed to the location. I will revel in the knowledge that once again the parents will make an astounding number of food deliveries past the kitchen window, which result in an explosion of noise when the hungry chicks beg to be fed. I simply cannot wait.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 24 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.


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