About us: We own the Wild Birds Unlimited nature shop in East Lansing, Michigan,
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Sunday, October 28, 2012

Small, gray, short-bodied, long-tailed, big-headed flycatcher

The Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) is one of the first birds to return to the breeding grounds in spring and one of the last to leave in the fall. They arrive for breeding in mid-March, and return to winter territories in September and October.

Eastern Phoebes breed all across Michigan in open deciduous woodlands, usually near water. They spend the winter primarily across the southeastern United States, ranging as far north as Virginia, southern Kentucky, and central Oklahoma and as far south as central Mexico. An insectivorous, this tyrant flycatcher sits alertly on low perches, often twitching their tail as they look for flying insects. They also eat fruits and berries in cooler weather.

The Eastern Phoebe's call is a sharp chip, and their characteristic song  fee-bee gave them their common name. They are a gray sparrow-sized bird with a lighter gray belly and no eye rings, no obvious wing bars and an all dark bill and legs. The Eastern Phoebe is a fairly short-bodied, long-tailed flycatcher with a thin pointed bill and a big-headed look when they puff up their small crest.

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2 comments:

Lisa Frederick Crawford said...

I have a pair of Eastern Phoebe nesting on my back porch. I live in Fayetteville, GA, just south of Atlanta. Is this unusual for these birds. This is the second year they have nested on my back porch. My email address is lcrawfo59@gmail.com. I would love to hear if this is abnormal for this breed. Thank you. Lisa.

Wild Birds Unlimited Mid-Michigan said...

Eastern Phoebes breed in wooded areas (particularly near water sources) that provide nesting sites—typically human-built structures such as eaves of buildings, overhanging decks, bridges, and culverts. Before these sites were common, phoebes nested on bare rock outcrops and still do occasionally. They seem to choose nest sites with woody understory vegetation nearby, possibly to make the nest site less visible or to provide perches near the nest for the adult.

Eastern Phoebes build nests in niches or under overhangs, where the young will be protected from the elements and fairly safe from predators. They avoid damp crevices and seem to prefer the nests to be close to the roof of whatever alcove they have chosen. Nests are typically less than 15 feet from the ground (in a few cases they have been built below ground level, in a well or cistern).

Only the female builds the nest, often while the male accompanies her. She constructs the nest from mud, moss, and leaves mixed with grass stems and animal hair. The nest may be placed on a firm foundation or it may adhere to a vertical wall using a surface irregularity as a partial foundation. The female may at first need to hover in place while she adds enough of a mud base to perch on. Nests can take 5–14 days to build and are about 5 inches across when finished. The nest cup is 2.5 inches across and 2 inches deep. Unlike most birds, nests are often reused in subsequent years—and sometimes used by Barn Swallows in some years.

The eggs are white with little gloss, and they sometimes have a few reddish-brown dots on one end. Incubation lasts about 16 days, less for the second brood which occurs in summer. Incubation is carried out solely by the female, and the male does not feed her while she sits. Most eggs hatch within a 24-hour period, and the female removes the eggshells from the nest immediately afterwards. Though the chicks are able to fly by day 15, they usually do not fledge until day 16 or 18. Both males and females feed the young. The young are capable of breeding in their first year.

The Eastern Phoebe is a good bug catcher, consuming mostly flying insects such as wasps, ants, flies and wild bees. Invertebrates such as grasshoppers, airborn spiders, hairworms from the water and even small fishes from shallow water round out their diet.

Flycatching is its main means of obtaining food, usually done from a perch less than 10 meters off the ground. It also occasionally chases flying insects to the ground, pounces on insects on the ground, and picks insects from trees while hovering. Its most active foraging period occurs in the morning.