Birds – Phoebe

(Sayornis phoebe) Flycatcher family


Length—7 inches. About an inch longer than the English sparrow.

Male and Female—Dusky olive-brown above ; darkest on head, which is slightly crested. Wings and tail dusky, the outer edges of some tail feathers whitish. Dingy yellowish white underneath. Bill and feet black.

Range—North America, from Newfoundland to the South Atlantic States, and westward to the Rockies. Winters south of the Carolinas, into Mexico, Central America, and the West Indies.

Migrations—March. October. Common summer resident.

The earliest representative of the flycatcher family to come out of the tropics where insect life fairly swarms and teems, what does the friendly little phoebe find to attract him to the north in March while his prospective dinners must all be still in embryo ? He looks dejected, it is true, as he sits solitary and silent on some projecting bare limb in the garden, awaiting the coming of his tardy mate; nevertheless, the date of his return will not vary by more than a few days in a given locality year after year. Why birds that are mated for life, as these are said to be, and such de-voted lovers, should not travel together on their journey north, is another of the many mysteries of bird-life awaiting solution.

The reunited, happy couple go about the garden and out-buildings like domesticated wrens, investigating the crannies on piazzas, where people may be coming and going, and boldly entering barn-lofts to find a suitable site for the nest that it must take much of both time and skill to build.

Pewit, phoebe, phoebe; pewit, phoebe, they contentedly but rather monotonously sing as they investigate all the sites in the neighborhood. Presently a location is chosen under a beam or rafter, and the work of collecting moss and mud for the foundation and hair and feathers or wool to line the exquisite little home begins. But the labor is done cheerfully, with many a sally in midair either to let off superfluous high spirits or to catch a morsel on the wing, and with many a vivacious outburst of what by courtesy only we may name a song.

When not domesticated, as these birds are rapidly becoming, the phoebes dearly love a cool, wet woodland retreat. Here they hunt and bathe ; here they also build in a rocky bank or ledge of rocks or underneath a bridge, but always with clever adaptation of their nest to its surroundings, out of which it seems a natural growth. It is one of the most finished, beautiful nests ever found.

A pair of phoebes become attached to a spot where they have once nested; they never stray far from it, and return to it regularly, though they may not again occupy the old nest. This is because it soon becomes infested with lice from the hen’s feathers used in lining it, for which reason too close relationship with this friendly bird-neighbor is discouraged by thrifty house-keepers. When the baby birds have come out from the four or six little white eggs, their helpless bodies are mercilessly attacked by parasites, and are often so enfeebled that half the brood die. The next season another nest will be built near the first, the following summer still another, until it would appear that a colony of birds had made their homes in the place.

Throughout the long summer—for as the phoebe is the first flycatcher to come, so it is the last to go—the bird is a tireless hunter of insects, which it catches on the wing with a sharp click of its beak, like the other members of its dexterous family.

Say’s Phoebe (Sayornis saya) is the Western representative of the Eastern species, which it resembles in coloring and many of its habits. It is the bird of the open plains, a tireless hunter in midair sallies from an isolated perch, and has the same vibrating motion of the tail that the Eastern phoebe indulges in when excited. This bird differs chiefly in its lighter coloring, but not in habits, from the black pewee of the Pacific slope.