BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: Few other birds are as charming as eastern phoebes
Along with their interesting behaviors, including their tail-wagging ways, their unique nesting habits, and their telltale “fee-ah-bee” song, few other birds are as charming to be around.
Earlier this spring during a brief period when Old Man Winter was losing the annual tug-o-war with Lady Spring, I heard an eastern phoebe singing near my house. I remember thinking, "Oh, good; the phoebes are back!"
A few days later, however, winter came back with a vengeance, followed quickly by massive reverse migrations of songbirds and waterfowl alike. Now, weeks later, the phoebes appear to be back for good.
Eastern phoebes are certainly one of the more interesting behaving avian species of wild birds that I know of. 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 habit of pumping their tails downward as they vocalize and perch), are appealing birds.
One would think that since eastern phoebes frequently nest in such close association with people, the species are natural socialites. In actuality, phoebes are fairly aggressive to other birds that happen to venture too close to their nesting territories and 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 materials, too.
While there are many other birds that have fly-catching abilities, like gnatcatchers, kinglets, warblers, bluebirds, and others, few birds can match the fly-catching skills of flycatchers. Other common flycatchers in our region of Minnesota include the eastern wood-peewee, eastern kingbird, western kingbird, least flycatcher and the great crested flycatcher.
I’ve often observed eastern phoebes capturing flying insects after launching themselves from a favorite perch and giving chase. The hapless insects, though expert flyers, are always overmatched by the phoebes’ sheer will and command of flight. Culminating each series of seemingly hard-earned victories, audible snaps, like the loud click of one’s fingers, can be heard as the phoebe’s beak snaps shut onto its meal.
And it is with this amazing fly-catching attribute — the snapping beak — that not only helps such birds capture their prey with such efficiency but also to differentiate flycatchers from the many other insect-eating songbirds. Flycatchers possess special ligaments that connect the upper and lower mandibles. These ligaments are like tiny springs that snap the open mouth closed when a flying insect is captured.
Eastern phoebes, as mentioned, routinely nest on all kinds of human-made structures. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed observing mated phoebe pairs construct their nests inside a tractor loader, on top of the house’s exterior light fixture, underneath the eaves of the porch and in other interesting locations. At my Kittson County deer camp, a pair of phoebes often build their nest on a ledge of the outhouse.
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 I’ve watched.
Both the male and female seem to have favorite perches such as the dead branches of nearby trees, the metal shepherds hook in the backyard, and on the tips of spruce boughs overlooking specific places of the yard as they watch for and capture flying insects. As of yet, however, I haven’t noticed the pair selecting a nest site.
Aerial acrobats they are, eastern phoebes are efficient insectivorous wild birds. Along with their interesting behaviors, including their tail-wagging ways, their unique nesting habits, and their telltale “fee-ah-bee” song, few other birds are as charming to be around as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.