Phoebes Take On UFOs
The dads take fatherhood seriously, too
Phoebes are inconspicuous in plumage, but you will hear them from wooded areas loud and clear: FEEE-bee-bee-bee! Eastern phoebes, part of the flycatcher family, swoop down from understory branches to catch moths, mosquitoes and other Undesirable Flitting Objects. The generic name for flycatchers, Empidomax, is from the Greek for king of the gnats.
Prim grey coloring belies the phoebes’ bold and charming nature. A sporty convertible crest pops up when extra emphasis is called for. I’ve seen males entertain a nest-bound female, dancing and singing along the porch railing like Justin Timberlake of the bird world.
Along with its flirtatious streak, a Phoebe male is a faithful father, bringing tidbits to its mate and working from dawn past dark to feed four or five hungry mouths. Most years the pair will raise two broods.
Phoebes take advantage of a small sheltered platform to construct a lacy green nest made of mud and moss, lined with hair, feathers and grass. Newlyweds usually set up housekeeping on top of our porch lamp but this year chose the uppermost bend of a downspout. The Birder’s Handbook says nest-building takes seven to 12 days, but we watched this one start-to-finish in three, including the extra work involved in leveling it where the drainpipe slopes downward.
When nestlings hatch, I like to provide mealworms at a raised tray feeder. Andy Brown, senior naturalist for Calvert County’s Natural Resources Division, cautions me to discontinue free lunch once babies have fledged out of concern that birds may be lulled into delaying or abandoning migration. As with songbirds in general, phoebes’ numbers have declined, and a few have been known to risk overwintering here.
If a pair settles in your vicinity, there will be no mosquitoes bothering you, nor any cabbage butterflies chewing your Brussels sprouts. You might attract these fascinating birds to your yard by building a small four-by-six-inch wood platform mounted by small L-brackets about six inches below the eaves on the shady side of your house or garage.