Top Billing: Eastern Phoebe
These friendly insect eaters are a pleasure to have in your yard.
Imagine having voracious insect eaters working overtime in your yard, keeping the garden free of pesky bugs.
The eastern phoebe is just such an insect eater. As members of the flycatcher family, their diets consist almost entirely of insects. Anyone who can lure a pair of these helpful and friendly fliers to nest under the eaves of their house should consider themselves lucky.
The phoebe's friendly personality more than compensates for its plain and drab olive-brown appearance. These birds seem to like people, and people certainly like them.
The two traits that distinguish a phoebe are its constant bobbing tail, and the insistent and rapid repeating of its name with its call, "fee-bee, fee-bee, fee-bee."
This is the sound I heard one day last spring when my neighbor Jean Smith called me over to her yard to look at a bird nest. It was a well-built structure under the eaves of her roof, and a bird was sitting on it incubating eggs. I was happy to inform her that it was an eastern phoebe.
About 10 days later, I returned to the Smith house with my camera and photographed the parent phoebes feeding their nestlings. Like all phoebes, the adults favored a nearby landing perch where they stopped before flying to the nest.
The one here was just a post about 5 feet high and 20 feet from the nest. I was delighted when I was able to get photos of both parents on the staging perch, their bills stuffed with food.
Meeting a Legend
When I think of eastern phoebes, I remember the day I met the legendary father of modern bird-watching, Roger Tory Peterson, at a youth camp in West Virginia. I was outside photographing a phoebe's nest on an electric meter.
Peterson seemed interested that a 13-year-old boy with a huge Speed Graphic Press camera was taking black-and-white pictures of phoebes feeding their nestlings. We talked more about photography that day in 1949 than about birds, which surprised me. But that trend continued virtually every time we were together in the decades that followed.
It's not strange to see a phoebe's nest on top of an electric meter because these birds nest in some of the most unusual locations. Before people built structures, phoebes constructed their nests in cliffs and in the entrances to caves. Today, they favor ledges on man-made structures.
When I was a boy, my dad showed me multiple eastern phoebe nests, one at the entrance to an old coal mine in western Pennsylvania, and another on a beam under a small bridge crossing Standing Stone Creek in central Pennsylvania.
The Point of Return
I've also seen nests along the curves of downspouts and the tops of cabin bells. If you see a phoebe nest, there's a good chance you could see it again. When they are successful at a nesting site, they usually return to the same spot, year after year.
While visiting Tom and Ann Paugh at their cottage near the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia, I noticed a phoebe darting in and out from under their deck.
"Yeah, they nest there every year," Tom said.
To get a closer look at the nest, we got on our hands and knees on the deck, and peered down through a crack in the floor to see five white eggs in a lovely cup of moss.
Eastern phoebes are not likely to visit bird feeders, though they will frequent backyards where there are birdbaths, ponds and a ledge or two on buildings. If you are lucky, a pair will bring joy to you as they spend their days catching insects on the wing.