Brooklyn Bird Watch: Eastern Phoebe

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Today Brooklyn Bird Watch features a Heather Wolf photo of the Eastern Phoebe. The Eastern Phoebe is considered a “flycatcher” and although bird watchers do not admire its “drab” plumage, many things about this small bird make it very popular among bird aficionados.

For example, the Eastern Phoebe has a special place in bird history because in 1803 the famous ornithologist and painter John James Audubon used the Eastern Phoebe to conduct the first “bird-banding” experiment in America. Audubon “attached a silver thread to the legs of Eastern Phoebe nestlings before they migrated. The next spring, he recaptured two of the marked phoebes, which had returned to his property. From that time until today, ornithologists have employed bird banding to track birds' migratory movements and to ensure accurate counts of their populations.”

Probably less important to bird history than to Audubon himself; he was known to be particularly fond of this bird because many of them nested near his home in Mill Grove, Pennsylvania, where Audubon courted his neighbor and future wife Lucy Bakewell.

We have also mentioned birds and poetry before, and the Phoebe makes an appearance in a sad Robert Frost poem published in 1923. In the poem “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things”, Frost describes how phoebes were still nested inside a barn on a farm abandoned after the farmhouse burned to the ground.

“But though they rejoiced in the nest they kept,One had to be versed in country thingsNot to believe the phoebes wept.”

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The Phoebe is also part of a family of birds known as the “tyrant flycatchers”. These birds are known for what’s called a “sit and wait” insect hunting strategy. It perches with a nervous tail wag and as soon as it spots an insect it swiftly darts out to catch it mid-air. Phoebes will also snatch small invertebrates from foliage, the ground and water surfaces. They don’t mind eating a lot of the insects that we (people) think of as pests, like wasps, flies, spiders, centipedes and ticks. During the winter months when the food they prefer is scarce, they will eat primarily berries.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says: “The Eastern Phoebe is a plump songbird with a medium-length tail. It appears large-headed for a bird of its size. The head often appears flat on top, but phoebes sometimes raise the feathers up into a peak. Like most small flycatchers, they have short, thin bills used for catching insects.”

The use of buildings and bridges for nest sites has allowed the Eastern Phoebe to tolerate the landscape changes made by humans and even expand its range. However, it still uses natural nest sites when they are available. Unlike most birds, Eastern Phoebes often reuse nests in subsequent years—and sometimes Barn Swallows use them in between. In turn, Eastern Phoebes may renovate and use old American Robin or Barn Swallow nests themselves.

Eastern Phoebe numbers have increased due to the species' ability to live alongside people. That doesn't mean these birds are free from dangers. Their nests are often parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds, which eject phoebe eggs before laying their own. And like other adaptable and increasing species such the American Robin, the Eastern Phoebe must still contend with human-wrought threats including outdoor cats and pesticides.


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