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NATURE’S TURN: North America’s Eastern Phoebe — reliable tenant, engaging neighbor

Phoebes find the structures we build adaptable to their own need for shelter while raising young. In turn, our lives are enriched by observing their activities and hearing their “fee bee” vocalizations in our midst.

A pair of Eastern Phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) returns to my house and garden every spring. The couple furnishes their attached apartment with exquisite taste, are models of industriousness, and exhibit an impeccable sense of responsibility for raising a family. Phoebes, at 6.5 to seven inches, with black beak, dark head, and white throat, are classified with a large group of birds known as tyrant flycatchers, mostly insect eaters. They are outstanding as the “flycatcher that coexists with humans.”

Phoebes find the structures we build adaptable to their own need for shelter while raising young. In turn, our lives are enriched by observing their activities and hearing their “fee bee” vocalizations in our midst. “Fee bee,” “fee bee,” Phoe-be, with emphasis, fee-bee, and the occasional succession of raspy-voiced fee-bree, fee-breee!

Phoebe parent about to fly after feeding young. June 13, 2024, 9:20 a.m. Photograph © Judy Isacoff.

As alluded to in the May edition of “Nature’s Turn,” more than 20 years ago I discovered that phoebes had constructed a nest anchored to a thin strip of window molding in a secluded corner of my house. The next spring, I attached the three-sided nestbox close to their chosen location. Refer to lead photo, top of page.

This spring, on April 14, the phoebe appeared at the modified nestbox in view of my kitchen window. The size and plumage of phoebe males and females are not distinctly different. Close observers report that the female chooses the nest location, although the male checks out potential areas. Likewise, the female builds the nest while the male keeps close company.

Below is a timeline describing the approximate duration of nesting events in the life of a phoebe arriving to points north after migrating from either the southeastern United States or Southern Mexico. To the right of each nesting event is my rough record of this year’s dates at my spot in the Berkshires.

Estimated timeline from nest construction to fledging: two months to 10 weeks.

Nest construction: 5 – 14 days (average 9 days), April 14 – 28
Egg laying: 7 – 14 days after nest completion, April 29 – May 10
Incubation: average 16 days, May 11 – 27
Nestling period: usually 16 – 20 days, May 27 – June 14
Fledging: June 14
Number of broods: 1 – 2

April 14 – June 14 = 9 weeks

Phoebe parent poised to feed nestling. June 13, 2024, 11 a.m. Photograph © Judy Isacoff.

Flying insects compose most of the phoebe’s diet. They are “sit-and-wait” hunters, springing from a fence post, twig, or trellis to pursue flyers-by, including moths, wasps, beetles, dragonflies, butterflies. Phoebes also have an appetite for other invertebrates and occasional small fruits or seeds.

Immature phoebe at edge of platform shelter about 10 minutes before fledging. June 14, 2024, 6:56 a.m. Photograph © Judy Isacoff.

During over two weeks of intense food gathering and deliveries to the nestlings, I caught sight of what looked like a relay race: one phoebe on wing quickly exiting the nest, empty-mouthed, passing the other speeding in for a delivery. The bird flying in held a mouthful of moths.

Young bird grooming. June 14, 2024, 7:03 a.m. Photograph contributed © Judy Isacoff.
All four nestlings at edge of shelf, looking out the morning they fledged. June 14, 2024, 7:04 a.m. Photograph contributed © Judy Isacoff.

At 8 a.m. on the morning of June 14, I was working at a garden on a knoll about 100 feet from the nest. I looked up to find my husband sprinting up the hill to relate to me that the young birds were about to fledge, urging me to hurry home for the event.

The nest was empty when I looked up to the roofed platform. I missed the momentous occasion but might have a second chance. A few days ago, mother phoebe returned to the nestbox, coming and going, adding new material to the woven nest within.

Eastern Phoebe. Photograph by Kelly Colgan Azar via Creative Commons and Birdshare.
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