Thursday, April 24, 2008

Phoebes & Juncos

Nature Watch
April 24, 2008

By Susan Benson,
CNHM Director of Education

Hellos and Goodbyes
I said “hello” this week to one of my best friends, and welcomed her back to my home in the woods. Her name is Phoebe. Some might know her as the Greek goddess of the moon, or the interesting character from the sitcom Friends. She arrived this past Wednesday, April 16, and will spend her next few months visiting me and talking with me every day. Technically, her name is Eastern phoebe. Any birder knows who I am talking of, the bold bird friend that can be observed from the arctic circle to the equator. Phoebe is one of the New World flycatchers and is a very aggressive insectivore, better known to me as the bird with a tremendous personality.

Phoebe’s color is a gray-brown, and she is a sparrow-like flycatcher with a light breast and a black bill. Every morning she greets me with her two syllable “fee-bee,” “fee-bee.” The first “fee-bee” goes down in pitch, and the second goes up. While some people might nod their heads at me in greeting, Phoebe has the habit of greeting me while bobbing her tail downward and upward again. She has a few places in my yard that seem to be her favorite perches every year, and she never appears to mind my human presence. This is one species that seems to thrive among any kind of development.

We share the same house. Every year Phoebe finds a sheltered spot under the eaves of my house to make her nest, although some birds will consider a porch or even inside a barn. Six inches square is about all she needs to build upon, and moss and mud seems to be two of her most common nest-building materials. She doesn’t like it when I get near her nest, but each year I check in on her young to make sure they’re doing well. Phoebes are common cowbird hosts, and to combat this parasitic bird species, phoebes sometimes will build a new nest floor over top of cowbird eggs.

The eastern phoebe is the first flycatcher to arrive up north in the spring. Why does the phoebe come back so early and how does it survive when there are no insects to eat? The first field guide I looked at says that phoebes also eat berries and seeds, mostly in winter; insects and the occasional small fish or frog during other times. Phoebes also don’t go very far south for the winter, flying only to the southern United States. All other flycatchers winter in Central or South America and do not show up here until May when insects are available here.

At the same time I am greeting the phoebes around my house, I am also saying goodbye to the slate-colored juncos. Sunday morning I went for a short walk and was serenaded by the flash and song of what seemed like 40 or more juncos. This bird is a delightful uniform pale gray bird with its upperparts sharply defined against its white belly, aptly described as "leaden skies above, snow below." During the fall these small birds will fly south to inhabit much of the United States and northern Mexico in their winter flocks. During winter they will become frequent visitors to the yards of homes where food has been put out, preferring to scratch the ground for an easier meal.

Spring migration begins in around April 7th-12th as juncos fly over much of the eastern and Midwestern states on their journey north to Alaska and Canada. These birds will build up fat reserves before migrating in the spring, and will move northward rapidly in flocks of up to 100 birds. They will sometimes be accompanied by other sparrows. Male juncos will usually arrive early to establish territory for their nests. I say goodbye to these birds now, knowing they will soon find themselves the summer companion of the canoeist in the Canadian forests.

Nature Watch is brought to you by the Cable Natural History Museum. For 40 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility in Cable at 43570 Kavanaugh Street or on the web at to learn more about exhibits and programs.

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