BLANE KLEMEK COLUMN: Phoebes sure are fun birds

About a week ago I heard the distinctive call of an eastern phoebe--"fee-bee . . . fee-bee . . . fee bee." Indeed, springtime has definitely arrived when this charming species of flycatcher arrives here in the northland. Known for their incessant...

Blane Klemek

About a week ago I heard the distinctive call of an eastern phoebe-"fee-bee . . . fee-bee . . . fee bee." Indeed, springtime has definitely arrived when this charming species of flycatcher arrives here in the northland. Known for their incessant jerking of their tail downward while perched, few other birds are as endearing as eastern phoebes are.

This beloved species of bird that has a penchant for building their little nests on homes and other structures and objects, seems almost dependent on we humans for places to construct their delicate nests.

In fact, over the years phoebes have built their nests and raised their families underneath the upside down loader-bucket on my old tractor. And as typical of me, I'd purposely avoid using the tractor for several weeks in order to give the phoebe parents time to raise their nestlings until the offspring fledged.

As luck would have it, I happened to be home the day when this year's phoebe-pair were searching for a suitable place to build. I suspected that my house's roof overhang above our front steps would end up being the frontrunner nest site, and I was correct. The pair studiously selected a spot above one of the pillars directly underneath the rafters. I could tell because they kept returning to the same spot and inspecting every inch of it while excitedly calling to each other. The next day I saw that they had begun nest construction at exactly the location I observed them select.

Aside from the roof overhang and my tractor loader, I have discovered phoebes raising their families on the window sills of my camper and on the tops of outdoor light fixtures on other houses I've lived in, too. For sure, phoebes build their nests on or in the most unseemly places of any wild bird I know of. It makes me wonder what phoebes chose as nest sites long before houses, barns, and sheds began showing up on the North American continent long ago. Who knows? Maybe phoebes nested on structures and objects at Indian encampments, too.


Eastern phoebes are certainly one of the more interesting behaving avian species of wild bird that I know. Belonging to a group of birds collectively called flycatchers, phoebes are often described as one of the most recognizable species of flycatcher in North America. Indeed, their darkish head, black bill, and their noteworthy song, "fee-ah-bee, fee-ah-bee" (along with their aforementioned habit of pumping their tails downward as they vocalize and perch), tend to appeal to many a human observer.

One would think that since eastern phoebes frequently nest in such close association with people, that the species are natural socialites. In actuality phoebes are fairly aggressive to not only other birds that happen to venture too closely to their nesting territories, phoebes are rarely observed with their own species, save for their own mates and nestlings. Even then, it's common to observe an incubating female chasing away its own mate!

Phoebes, being flycatchers, are experts at capturing insects, especially flying insects, but they prey upon a host of insects, including beetles, bugs, caterpillars, spiders, dragonflies and even ticks. They will also eat seeds, fruits, and other plant-based material, too.

As is the case with all eastern phoebes I've observed over the past many summers, this season's pair seems hardly different from all those other phoebe pairs. Both the male and female seem to have favorite perches such as the dead branches of nearby trees, the metal shepherd's hook in the backyard and on the tips of spruce boughs overlooking specific places of the yard.

Able to catch flying insects while totally airborne themselves, eastern phoebes are natural avian aerial acrobats and efficient insectivores. Along with their interesting behaviors, including their tail wagging ways and their unique nesting habits, few other birds are as amusing and welcoming as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at .

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