Birdwatch

Calls of the Wild

The season of the full-throated eastern phoebe is here

By Susan Campbell

Eastern phoebes are small black-and-white birds that can be easily overlooked — if it weren’t for their loud voices. Repeated “feee-bee, fee-bee” can be heard around wet areas all over our state during the warmer months. The farther west one travels through the Piedmont and into the Foothills, calling males become more and more common. From March through June, they loudly and incessantly declare their territory from elevated perches adjacent to ponds and streams.

Phoebes have an extensive range in the Eastern United States: from the coast to the Rockies and up and across central Canada. In the winter they can be found in southern states from the Carolinas over to Texas down into Mexico and even in northern Central America. They are exclusively insectivorous, feeding on beetles, dragonflies, moths — any bugs that will fit down the hatch. Although they don’t typically take advantage of feeders, I have seen one that did manage to negotiate a suet cage one winter. The birds’ feet are weak, and they are not capable of clinging. So this bird actually had perfected a hovering technique as it fed in spurts.

Originally, Eastern phoebes would use ledges on cliff faces for nesting. We do not know much about their habits in such locations since few are found breeding in such places now. Things have changed a lot for these birds as humans have altered their landscape and offered them an abundance of urban locales in which to nest.

In our area, phoebes can be easy to spot as a result of their loud calls, but their nests may not be. Good-sized open cup structures, the habitats will be tucked in out-of-the-way locations. Typically they will be on a ledge high up on a girder under a bridge or associated with a large culvert. The corner of a porch or another protected flat spot often suits them. Grasses and thin branches are woven and glued together with mud, so the nests are necessarily located near wet areas.

The affinity eastern phoebes have for nesting on man-made structures in our area may indicate that these are safer than more traditional locations. Climbing snakes are not uncommon in the Piedmont and Sandhills. Black rat snakes and corn snakes are not as active in buildings as they are on bridges and other water-control structures. It might be that the birds are adapting their behavior in response to these predators and others that are less likely to dwell so close to human activity.

In recent years it has been fascinating to discover the variety of locations that these little birds choose as support structure for nesting.  Light fixtures and light boxes (such as the one on our hay barn that is this year’s choice for the local pair), gazebos, porch support posts and other domestic structures suit their needs as long as they are covered by at least a slight overhang. Water, of course, is a necessity for phoebes in summer, and they require mature trees for perching and foraging, as well. So keep an ear out and perhaps you will find one of these adaptable birds nearby — ’tis the season!!

Susan would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos at susan@ncaves.com.

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