The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The eastern phoebe is an early winter resident
by Ro Wauer

Already some of our wintering birds are beginning to arrive in South Texas, and one of my favorites is the eastern phoebe. Almost every yard and field is claimed by one of these perky flycatchers. It spends it winter days capturing insects that it finds from low perches. One will suddenly dart out and snap up a passing fly or pounce on an insect on the ground or on a tree trunk or branch. Then it will return to a favorite perch, swallow its catch, jerk its tail, and wait for the next passing tidbit.

Eastern phoebes are one of our hardiest flycatchers; all the other members of this rather extensive family fly south for the winter, but this bird migrates only short distances, remaining just south of the really cold winter weather. It is able to survive the extreme cold conditions that we experience once or a few times each winter. At such times, it is actually able to feed on a non-insect diet, consuming seeds, fruit, and even an occasional small vertebrate. Its ability to change from insects to fruit to eat vertebrates attests to its amazing adaptability and physical characteristics, especially a bill wide enough to capture insects in flight yet strong enough to, capture, hold and swallow small vertebrates.

The eastern phoebe is resident throughout the eastern half of North America, nesting just north of our area, usually on structures such as porches, bridges, and cliffs. Nests are constructed primarily of mud and moss. One New England bridge site was utilized for thirty consecutive years. John James Audubon placed thin wires of the legs of one family, said to have been the first time birds were ever banded.

Its name comes from its rather distinctive “fee-bee” calls, that it may utter singly or many in an extremely very short time. It also has a clear and sweet chip note. These vocalizations can usually be heard all winter.

The phoebe, one of three in North America (including black and Say’s phoebes), is readily identified by its size (about 7 inches), brownish back, darker head, no wing bars or eye rings, whitish throat, and whitish to faint yellowish underparts. It also has the typical flycatcher habitat or jerking its tail when perched, but unlike most other flycatchers, this phoebe will sweep its tail widely, down and up and often toward the side, giving it a swaggering appearance.

The eastern phoebe is a marvelous wintertime neighbor!

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