Phoebe: Audubon’s Bird

By John Turner

If you love observing the natural world, once in a while you receive a gift. Maybe it’s a special moment of excitement such as with an osprey hitting the water with talons flaring and, with labored flight, lifting off the surface with a writhing fish firmly ensconced. Perhaps it’s a moment of intimacy provided by a doe nuzzling her fawn or a mother cottontail rabbit licking her newborn young. Or it might involve watching a bee stumble, seemingly drunk, over a clustered ball of milkweed flowers as it tumbles actively over flower heads, probing for nectar. 

Sometimes these gifts come in the form of an intimate close-up view of an animal afforded by favorable circumstance. Such is the case with two phoebes I experienced recently, one that ends in a happy story while the other is tinged with momentary sadness.

Phoebes, one of the more common members of the flycatcher family in the eastern United States, associate with humans. It probably relates to the fact that before human habitation they nested on cliffs and rock crevices. Today, the flat surfaces on the undersides of bridges or recessed window ledges serve as substitutes.  

Phoebes nest at the Scully Estate, finding the concrete window ledges on the mansion to their liking. Each year, for the past several years, they’ve built nests and laid eggs only to have them predated by crows or blue jays. Such was the case this year. We watched as a female dutifully constructed her nest made with mud, moss (a telltale sign of a phoebe nest) and other soft material, and began to incubate. The male often perched on trees nearby, seemingly watching his mate’s progress. The nest was on the interior corner of the building and was a mere foot and a half away from a bathroom window. To look at her directly was to risk her being disturbed but we were fortunate to have an alternative way to view her: the mirror over the sink reflected at a perfect angle through the window and through it we could witness her “goings on” without any fear of disturbing her. I’d watch her for minutes at a time and was amazed at her level of alertness – her head and eyes were objects of ceaseless motion as she constantly surveyed her surroundings.

When she was off the nest, presumably to feed, I’d take advantage of her absence to make a quick inspection of the nest. The first time I looked I was surprised to see an egg that was light tannish green with heavy brown splotches. Phoebe eggs are dull white so I knew she had been the target of a brown-headed cowbird that had laid an egg in her nest. Cowbirds are known as brood parasites meaning they lay their eggs in the nests of other bird species and leave the care of the young, who develop quickly, to the host bird.  I saw her lay two eggs of her own but didn’t determine the final size of the clutch because I didn’t have another opportunity to look while she was off the nest.  

The nest didn’t survive. One day Lisa Smith, Seatuck’s Director of Development, noticed a crow (not sure if it was a Fish or American Crow) standing on the ledge next to the nest. Sneaking up to the bathroom later on and looking at the nest through the open window I confirmed the crow’s previous presence: all the eggs were gone and the nest was in disarray. The nesting attempt had failed.

Anybody who gets to know phoebes likes them; I’ve never met a person who felt differently. Frequenting the very places we frequent makes them endearing, a bird that has adapted to our surroundings, homes, buildings, and structures. Their unobtrusive presence nearby is comforting, especially when vocalizing their distinctive, raspy and eponymous “phee bee” call and displaying their customary tail bobbing (which they cannot control); they are gentle and welcoming birds.

Two weeks later I had another encounter with a phoebe, this one at Caleb Smith State Park Preserve in Smithtown. The porch that wraps around much of the house is covered and has wooden crossbeams that offer nesting opportunities that phoebes and barn swallows can’t resist. Sure enough there were three swallow nests and one phoebe nest – made with the typical combination of mud and moss.  Mama bird was on the nest and though I couldn’t see the chicks the brief two minutes I was there I could hear them and see them pushing against her breast feathers as she kept them warm. I left with every expectation that a new cohort of phoebes has joined the world.

By now you’re probably wondering, hey Turner, this is all fine and good but what’s the connection to Audubon as stated in the title to this column? Well, it has to do with the fact that John J. Audubon appears to have been the pioneer of bird banding when in 1804 he placed silver threads around the ankles of some phoebe fledglings. In the Pennsylvania countryside. What better way, he thought, to determine if the same birds come back to the same place each Spring after traveling hither and yon in the off-season. Well, return they did and with this one experiment Audubon illustrated the value of bird banding, which is still used to this day, to elucidate various aspects of migratory birds including their lifespan, location of breeding and wintering grounds, pathways they use between, and the time it takes to get reach either area.    

Audubon’s insightful method to determine the migratory behavior of phoebes was the first of what now totals nearly 70 million banded birds. Nearly four million banded birds have been recovered, most typically by recaptures and it’s these recaptures-connecting two dots on a map through the passage of time – that has allowed us to sketch a much bigger picture of the pathways birds use to travel from wintering grounds to breeding grounds and back.  All this data is managed by the U.S. Bird Banding Lab in Patuxent, Maryland    

If we were to band the phoebes at Scully what data might we get back from recaptured birds as to where they’re spending the colder months?   We cannot be certain but these birds probably overwinter in the southeastern United States anywhere from northern Florida west to eastern Texas (perhaps even into Mexico). As winter warms into spring they fan northward throughout eastern and central North America moving as far north as north central Canada.

Phoebes often double brood and reuse nest sites. We can hope that the Scully birds try again this year or return next year to nest – but with a different result.     


All phoebe photos by Luke Ormand. All rights reserved. See more of Luke’s work at:

Phoebe: Audubon’s Bird

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