What are the signs of spring that you watch for each year? Birds returning and flowers blooming, insects hatching, frogs calling, chipmunks scurrying…these are all milestones on the way to our brief summer of warmth and sun.
One of my favorite early-birds is the Eastern Phoebe. These dusky brown flycatchers spend the winter in the southern U.S. or Mexico, and they are one of the earliest of our feathered friends to return each spring. They have learned to tolerate a human-altered landscape quite well, and often build their moss and mud nests on bridges, barns, and homes.
The first time I noticed a Phoebe as a beginning birder I was completely baffled. They do not have striking markings or colors to make them stand out in the bird book. As I have become a better birder, I have realized that it is their call and their behavior not their looks that are helpfully distinctive.
Phoebes often perch low in trees or on fence lines, where their plump body and large flat-topped head give them a distinctive silhouette. Not only is their shape distinctive, but they also wag their tails down and up frequently as they watch for flying insects. Then they zip out to catch the bug, and often return to the same perch.
Their shape and behavior is similar to other flycatchers. In northern Wisconsin, we have about eight species of flycatchers, including Least and Great-Crested Flycatchers, Eastern Kingbirds, and Wood-Pewees. Some flycatchers look so similar to each other that voice is the primary field mark. However, none of these commonly nest on your porch!
Phoebes are very helpful to folks who are learning to “bird by ear,” because they say their own name. The song is a raspy, two-parted “fee-bee,” or a variation on that with a stutter in the second half. Like most birds, males are more vocal than females.
Other songbirds will spend one period of brain development memorizing songs of adults, and the next phase trying to match them. If a songbird does not grow up with adults of its own species, or is deaf, it does not develop a normal song. Phoebes do not need to do either! They do not need to hear other adults in order to produce the typical Phoebe song, and they do not even need to hear themselves to know that they are pronouncing their name correctly.
We have two lovely Phoebe nests in a display at the Museum. It is sometimes tempting to collect Phoebe nests on your own because bird nests are fun to examine, and Phoebe nests are easy to find. However, Phoebes often reuse their nests within the same season, or even the next year. In addition, it is illegal for you to possess bird nests without the proper permits. There would be no way for you to prove that you did not dump the babies of a protected species on the ground when you collected the nest. It is best to admire them in nature where you find them.
With my neighborhood Phoebes calling cheerfully, darting out to catch insects, and building a nest, it feels like a great start to the spring. Let me know what is happening in your yard!