When an Eastern phoebe is hungry for insects, it just wings it

The Eastern phoebe is the only phoebe found east of the Mississippi. (Deanna Dawson / U.S. Geological Survey)

I stood off to the side, leaning against the car, while Pat chatted at the wash station after picking up our weekly share of vegetables. She was focused on friends and fresh produce, but my eyes were on the bird that sallied off a fence post and back again, its tail constantly flicking.

The hot sun had brought out summer’s insects in force. The rather plain brown and white bird was busy catching midges on the wing and zipping back to its spot on the post. We were both gathering food in our own ways, and I was getting the benefit of both without taking a step.

Fly-catching is no easy feat, yet the bird seemed to be successful with each flight. Equipped with a slightly flattened, thin black bill and terrific agility, this bird was an expert insect catcher.

The Eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) is the only phoebe found east of the Mississippi. It is a tyrant flycatcher, part of the largest family of birds in the world, with more than 400 species. (The odd “tyrant” name dates back to 1731 and a naturalist named Mark Catesby who called the Eastern Kingbird, a large and aggressive flycatcher, “The Tyrant.” Tyrannus became the species name, and in time it became the genus name as well, encompassing kingbirds, phoebes and scores of other New World flycatchers.)

Although the bird comes from a family that covers the entire Western Hemisphere, the phoebe is a solitary bird that prefers to hunt on its own.

The behavior I was watching is typical. These birds like to fly directly from a low perch to catch insects on the wing before immediately returning to their roosts. The vantage point allows them to see their prey and snatch it in mid-air. Phoebes eat moths and butterflies, cicadas, wasps and other winged insects. Sometimes they eat spiders and ticks, often by hovering near a branch and gleaning the bugs there.

Phoebes have a brownish-gray nape and back with a dark head, wings and tail. The bird has a white throat and dingy white undersides. After breeding, the bird molts. Those off-white undersides will give way to a yellow wash. Faint wing bars are sometimes visible.

Eastern phoebes are short– to intermediate-migrants. During the winter, they live in Mexico and along the Gulf Coast. Some reside year-round in an area that stretches from Virginia down through the Carolinas into Georgia. During breeding season, many phoebes head north, covering the Mississippi River watershed, central Canada and points east to the Atlantic.

Nests are small mud-and-grass cups, usually built under eaves, bridges or in barns. They are built exclusively by females. Phoebes live in woodlands, parks and many suburban neighborhoods. You can identify them by that flicking tail and also by its voice, a quick, raspy whistled “shree-dip, shree-brr.”

Usually it is translated eponymously as “Phoe-bee.” It is similar to the softly lisped “fee-bee” of the black-capped chickadee.

Phoebes have inhabited areas close to humans since we arrived on this continent. Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, to learn that the first songbird bird ever banded was an Eastern phoebe. None other than John James Audubon captured a phoebe in a net and placed a tiny silver thread around its leg. Audubon was intrigued by the bird’s behavior and wanted to see if it would return to the same location in subsequent years. Because of his work and those who have followed, we now know that phoebes return to the same breeding territory and sometimes even reuse the same nest.

I thought about Audubon as I watched the phoebe venture forth yet again. We were in Upper Marlboro, MD, at the Clagett Farm. The farm provides veggies, berries and even wildflowers through its community-supported agriculture program. As longtime members, we have enjoyed the locally grown food for years. We also get to visit the farm weekly to enjoy its vegetable fields, woodlands, the pastures for the organically grown beef and the abundant birdlife.

When Audubon netted his phoebe, the rural landscape of his time probably looked much like this, with forests surrounding pastures and vegetable plots. Cattle grazed contentedly on untreated grasses. There is something timeless about farming.

Like the phoebe, I am a creature of solitary habits. And yet, I feel the tug of that silver thread, connecting me back through decades of birders to that inquisitive man who banded the first bird. I try to enjoy every detail of what I see, but there is always a desire to learn more and to see the story behind the view.

My gratitude on this summer day is manifold: for the bounty of the farm, for an extraordinary life partner, for those bird lovers who have preceded me — and for the tyrant flycatcher whose silver thread has bound us together.

Mike Burke, a Bay Journal columnist, is an amateur naturalist based in Maryland, having retired from a career that toggled between Capitol Hill and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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