Wednesday, May 4, 2011


Nature Watch

By Susan Thurn,
Cable Natural History Museum

Here is a question that came from a good Museum friend with whom I always swap nature stories: “I know we both had phoebe nests that had activity the past 2 years. The first year the couple had one set of eggs; the second summer they had 2 sets of eggs. Although I hear them back in the yard, I haven't seen any activity in the second year nest. I was wondering if you were seeing them back and not using their nest?”

Phoebes and humans often share the same house. Every year our Eastern phoebe finds a sheltered spot under the eaves of our house to make her nest, although some birds of this species will consider a porch, windowsills, porch rafters, or even inside a barn. The female builds her nest over several days. 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. They also will use mud, lining the inside with grasses, hair, and feathers.

Phoebes are quite loyal to their nests and will often build right on top of the previous year’s nest. They can reuse them for several years, as a little spring cleaning makes an old nest look like new. Under one bridge in New England, generations of phoebes were known to return to breed for over 30 years. At my own house, I have two different nest sites that have been used two different years, but then the nests were abandoned for other places around my house, always under the roof eaves.

She doesn’t like it when I get near her nest, but each year I check in on the phoebe’s young to make sure they’re doing well. I have learned from bird guides that phoebes are more tolerant to humans, but I avoid looking at the nest right before dusk, as the adults may not see well due to the amount of daylight, and not return to their nests. My actions then can end up doing harm to the young birds.

Phoebes are common cowbird hosts, a bird that lays its eggs in other birds’ nests. The young then push out the young to be raised by the adoptive parents. To combat this parasitic bird species, phoebes sometimes will build a new nest floor right over the top of the cowbird eggs.

The Eastern phoebe is a delight to have around in our back yards. They are valuable to us as they consume many pest insects that are also making their homes in our back yards. Their song begins early, and is beautiful to hear. Phoebes typically land on the same roost, and are fun to watch as they repeatedly twitch their tails. They are also fund to watch, as they are active flycatchers, swooping from trees in almost circus-like antics as they move to catch their insect food.

For over 44 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 13470 County Highway M. The new exhibit, The Joy of Birds, Feathers in Focus opens in May, 2011. Find us on the web at to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Also discover us on the web at, on Facebook, or at our blogspot, to learn more about our exhibits and programs.

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