By Peter Vankevich
The Eastern Phoebe is from the large family known as tyrant flycatchers that inhabit North and South America.
A rather plain-looking bird, it has a dark bill, olive/gray back and head, very faint or non-existent wing-bars and white or yellowish belly. With first year birds, the white/yellowish areas of the breast tend to be smaller and grayer than those of an adult.
It is similar in appearance to the Eastern Wood-Pewee which possesses more prominent white wing-bars and has a yellowish lower mandible.
These two flycatchers are easily distinguished in the field by behavior and sound. While perched the phoebe will pump its tail up and down.
Another easy distinguishing feature is their songs. Both have onomatopoeic names. The phoebe’s call is a low rasping fee-bee or fee-b-be-be. Its call note is soft and clear. The peewee’s call is just like its name. Note that Eastern Wood Peewees are rare on Ocracoke.
These are solitary birds. Only during mating season are they together.
They are well-known as being able to tolerate human presence around their nests which may be built on buildings such as a porch or a barn, and especially on bridges. In fact, it is believed that bridges have contributed to their western expansion over the past two centuries.
An early spring and, late fall migrant, phoebes can winter in much colder conditions than other flycatchers because they will eat fruits and berries when flying insects are not available.
They breed from the northern Canadian provinces south to the Gulf Coast states. This species winters in the southeastern U.S., with highest numbers along the Gulf Coast.
(audio provided courtesy of OhioLINK Digital Resource Commons)
Best Time to see: Spring and especially in fall. It is not present in summer. A few may winter over but there have only been a few records for the Ocracoke Christmas Bird Count over the past 30-plus years.
Where: Much of the island where there are trees, bushes, wire and fences with open areas. Particularly good locations are the pony pasture, campground and across from the campground, there is a sandy road that leads to the sound.
Eastern Phoebes favor being near water, probably due to more flying insects that they can feed on.
Only the female builds the nest which is made of mud, green moss, leaves, and lined with fine grass stems and even, when available, hair. With a second brood which frequently occurs, the female will build another nest, probably because of parasite infestation of the first one by the time the young birds fledge.
They are known to return to the same nest. This was discovered in 1803 when John James Audubon tied silver cords to the legs of a brood of phoebes near Philadelphia. The following spring two of these nestlings with the cords still attached appeared. Thus the Eastern Phoebe has the distinction of being the first record of bird banding in North America.
Tail pumping behavior is not well understood. David Sibley cites a study by Gregory Avellis who concluded that tail pumping is a signal meant to send a message to a would-be predator, letting it know that the phoebe has seen it, and therefore not worth pursuing. Here is a link to the discussion.
Cleveland Bent in his extensive writings called The Life History of American Birds, provided lots of examples of bird behavior. Of the Eastern Phoebe, he noted Clinton G. Abbott (1922) who told the story of a pair of phoebes that had built their nest on the veranda of his summer home before he and his family moved into it for the season on May 15.
At this time the nest contained five eggs. The female bird was alarmed at first, but “within a week,” she had succeeded in completely readjusting herself to the new conditions. From her original shy and timid self, she was metamorphosed into quite a different type of bird, stolidly remaining seated upon her nest regardless of sudden noises or the movements of people. Persons: even whole tea parties: were ignored, except that once or twice we thought we detected a tone of annoyance in the Phoebe’s voice upon finding a favorite chair occupied.”