Jeff Green | May 07, 2009
Back to HomeOutdoors in the Land O'lakes - May 7, 2009 Eastern Pheobeby Lorraine Julien
Eastern Phoebe - Our resident flycatchers, a pair of Eastern Phoebes, arrived back here a few weeks ago re-occupying the same nest they’ve used for the past few years, with a few repairs and modifications. Typical of Phoebes, this nest is tucked up on a beam under our screened porch. It’s a cozy little home fairly safe from predators and inclement weather. The nest is made of mud mixed with moss and leaves and lined with fine grass and fur and, in this case, some scraps of fiberglass insulation!
The use of buildings and bridges for nest sites has allowed the Eastern Phoebe to tolerate changes made by humans and even expand its range. However, natural nest sites are still used when they are available. Perhaps this adaptability and lack of shyness with humans is one of the reasons Phoebe numbers have remained relatively stable. Their preferred habitat, whether manmade or natural, is farmland, woodland or suburbia, usually near water.
The cheerful little Phoebe is one of the first birds to arrive here in the spring and one of the last to leave. Flying insects are their favourite food but if flying food is scarce, then ground insects, spiders, fruit and berries are next on the menu.
Eastern Phoebes are probably the most familiar flycatcher in eastern North America and are fairly easy to identify with their distinctive call of fee-bee, fee-bee, fee-bee and their constantly wagging tail. Interestingly, Black Capped Chickadees do a great imitation of the Phoebe’s call, especially in winter.
The Eastern Phoebe is a small bird with a dark, larger looking head and a slightly lighter olive brown back with a light grayish breast. Two indistinct buff bars are present on each wing. Its lack of an eye ring and clearly defined wingbars, and the dark bill distinguish it from other North American tyrant flycatchers. Phoebes belong to the Passerine order, which includes more than half of all bird species – sometimes known as perching birds having three toes forward and one back. Crows and ravens also belong to this group.
Eastern Phoebes made ornithological history in 1803 when John James Audubon tied silver thread on the legs of nestlings – the first North American experiment in bird banding and migratory tracking.
While the Eastern Phoebe has a fairly stable population, other flycatchers have not been so lucky.
Insectivores at Risk – According to the Nature Canada website, the Olive Sided Flycatcher is Canada’s newest threatened bird with a drop in numbers of about 50% over the past two decades. The Eastern Wood Pewee, Eastern Kingbird and the Purple Martin are some others that have experienced similar declines in population.
Other insectivores including the Bank Swallow, Common Nighthawk, Chimney Swift and the Barn Swallow have declining populations of about 70% since the mid-sixties.
These drastic declines in flycatcher and hawker populations seem to be due to a number of factors not the least of which is an overall decline in the number of flying insects. Many factors may contribute to this decline in insect population, one of which is the widespread use of pesticides. Obviously this would affect bird food supply and general health. Another factor, especially in eastern Canada, is the retirement of non-productive farmland that has been reverting back to forest. Migrating bird populations have also been affected by development – loss of habitat, high rise structures, etc. Detailed information on this subject is available on the Bird Studies Canada website.