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Blane Klemek column for July 4: Watching a phoebe family grow

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outdoors Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

Over the past few summers I have enjoyed a special pair of visitors in my house, or I should say, on my house.

During the summers of '08 and '09 they chose the back of my house, but this spring and summer they moved to the front, underneath the roof of the open-air porch, atop a support column, to build their delicate, mossy nest. Yes, the phoebes have adopted my house as theirs too.

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I've always found phoebes to be one of the more interesting behaving birds I know of. Belonging to a group of birds collectively called flycatchers, phoebes are unique amongst their kin for their propensity to nest on human-made structures.

For example, I have discovered phoebes raising their families in nests built on the loader of my old tractor, on the window sills of my camper and on the tops of outdoor light fixtures alongside other houses I've lived in. In a nutshell, phoebes have a penchant for nesting on the most unseemly places for what are obviously wild birds.

Specifically named the eastern phoebe, phoebes are often described as one of the most, if not the most, recognizable species of flycatcher in North America. Indeed, their interesting call, "fee-ah-bee, fee-ah-bee," along with their habit of pumping their tails up and down as they vocalize and perch, delight many a human observer, including yours truly.

One would think that since phoebes frequently nest in close association with people, that the species are natural socialites. The fact is that phoebes are fairly aggressive to not only other birds that venture too close to their nesting territories, but also are rarely observed with their own species, save for mated pairs. Even then, it's common to observe an incubating female chasing away its own mate.

This year's nesting pair of phoebes on my house have been much more observable than the pair - possibly the same pair, I can't say for sure - that nested on my house the last two years. This season's phoebes have chosen the front of my house to nest on. As such, I see them every day.

I recall observing the phoebes in early May searching the various nooks and crannies of my house for possible nest sites. Sitting inside my house, I watched as the pair chose the top of one of the support columns and the two-by-six cross members of the columns. It was enjoyable to see the phoebes flit about underneath the roof of the outdoor porch, landing here and there, communicating in a language I could not understand, and eventually choosing the location for their nest.

In the case of my phoebes, the nest was built surprisingly fast. I don't think it took the pair much more than a day or two to build it. And a short time later, perhaps less than a week, a lone egg had been deposited inside the mossy nest-bowl. Eventually, three other eggs were laid.

Soon after, the female phoebe was incubating her clutch of eggs. Every day I'd see her head above the rim of her nest; her eyes always looking toward the door with her body poised and ready to spring out of her nest to fly away as soon as I walked outside.

Eventually the female bird remained calmly inside her nest and actually allowed my passing underneath her as I left or entered the house. I realized, however, that her tolerance of me was probably more of an indication that her offspring were preparing to hatch rather than her getting used to my activities. That said, the bird seemed to behave less fearfully as the days went on.

Not long afterwards, perhaps about two weeks, the eggs hatched and suddenly both the male and female phoebes were busily feeding the hatchlings. And over the next two weeks I watched the phoebe parents dutifully care for their four growing youngsters. At first, when the newly hatched chicks were tiny, naked and virtually helpless, their mother was spending the entire nights brooding her clutch.

I often noticed her sitting inside her nest, as though she was still incubating eggs, when in actuality she was merely keeping her family warm and safe.

Phoebes are experts at capturing insects, particularly flying insects, but they prey upon a host of insects. As the phoebe family grew, both parents were constantly hunting for food to feed their hungry chicks. The phoebe chicks were ready for their first flight in about two weeks from the day they hatched. In the case of my phoebes, the fledglings' inaugural flight occurred unexpectedly.

I haven't seen the phoebe chicks since, but I'm fairly certain they're okay. Now the phoebe parents are making preparations for their second family.

As well, more time for me to delight in the antics of eastern phoebes as I get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

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