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{ 8 }  SNJ Today  |  MARCH 27, 2024
             FEATURE


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                                 Romanced                                   by         a     Phoebe
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                                      A sure sign of spring is when the eastern phoebe goes a-courtin’.
     NA  TURE AROUND US                                                                                       by  J. Morton Galetto, CU Maurice River
     NATURE AROUND US
           ach spring he serenades me in                                            The eastern phoebe’s scientific
           gray tails, a creamy shirt, and                                          name, Sayornis phoebe,            In addition to claiming
     Ea gray cap. His brown eyes are                                                is a construct of Charles
     hopeful. He uses our courtyard as his                                          Lucien Bonaparte’s name for         the railing and the
     amphitheater, where his voice broad-                                           Say’s phoebe, Muscicapa
     casts across the front of our property. He                                     saya, while ornis is ancient    courtyard, our suitor flies
     moves to the back of the house, sits on a                                      Greek for “bird.” Charles
     balcony railing, and sings again. He will                                      was a nephew of Napoleon            from tree to tree....
                                                                                    who coined the term
     not be ignored. Every spring he comes to                                       Say’s phoebe after
     draw me in, to captivate me. This year he                                      American naturalist
     showed up the second week in March.                                            Thomas Say. Phoebe             site in successive years. At times they may
        Interestingly, I am not alone. Many                                         is likely chosen because       also borrow a robin or barn swallow nest.
     people all over the northeastern half of                                       it mimics the sound               Each spring through summer, phoe-
     the United States and into northwestern                                        of the bird’s call, although   bes may raise two broods. One year we
     Canada are being approached by a similar                                       phoebe is also another         witnessed a black snake predate on the
                                                                                    name for the Roman
     suitor, a species if you prefer, a bird, the                                   goddess Diana.                 eggs and I suspect that was not the only
     eastern phoebe (scientific name Sayornis                                                                      time this has happened. Other known
     phoebe), especially if they live near water,                                   PHOTO: STEVE GIFFORD           predators include raccoons, chipmunks,
     stream, or riverside with a wooded edge.                                                                      mice, crows, jays, and house wrens.
     Another requisite is an overhang—a                                                                            Their greatest threat is thought to be the
     porch or a bridge. Here they nest on                                                                          cowbird, which lays an egg in a differ-
     ledges and corners.                                                                                           ent species’ nest for surrogate parenting.
        Eastern phoebes are one of the birds                                                                       Rearing this chick is commonly at the
     that have evolved to adapt to man’s mark                                                                      expense of the true owner’s young.
     on the landscape, making use of human-                                                                           Eggs are laid and incubated for 16
     built structures. But they will also use   too can sing but does so only rarely and   tree to tree shouting his “fee-bee” and   days, and after hatching the chicks will
     naturally occurring rocky outcrops near   briefly. Both sexes will call a “clear,   “fee-b-be-bee” in what I presume to   fledge in the same amount of time. A
     riverbanks and cave entrances.       sweet, weak ‘chip’ ” (Farrand 1983). The   be a territorial declaration, “This is my   clutch is typically five eggs. One to two
        Admittedly he is not really calling to   male will sing until he is paired with   area, so listen up!” The repertoire of   weeks after the chicks have left the nest
     me even though he never fails to get my   a female, and after that they will be   communication includes mandible snap-  the female will lay a second clutch and
     attention. His repertoire involves two   monogamous throughout the breeding   ping; this is not a bite but a sound and it   the process will begin over again.
     main variations of “fee-bee” and “fee-b-  season. Exceptions are rare, and in fact   is said to have startled many a “ringer”   It is estimated that over 16 days’ time
     be-bee.” Ornithologists call these “regu-  the same pair may breed at a site in con-  (what the English call a person who   adults make 600 to 1,000 trips with food.
     larly repeated vocalizations” and for the   secutive years.               bands birds).                       As the chicks grow the nest will be burst-
     eastern phoebe they are termed case RR1   After they pair they will proceed to   When selecting a nesting site the male   ing at the seams, so that the chicks must
     and RR2. These he belts out with mixed   select a nesting site. In our case they have   will advertise a vacancy by chattering   hang on the side to exercise their wings
     variations. Occasionally he raises his   chosen to build under the raised deck on   and fluttering near the new area. If it’s a   in preparation for flight.
     head feathers, transforming his smooth   the river side of our home. Between our   returning couple possibly this is merely   A number of birds like to use a perch
     head into a crest. It appears to me that   house and the river is a buffer of woods   perfunctory, or maybe it is simply part of   before entering their nesting location—a
     this raised crest is a response to a con-  that provides all the main habitat requi-  a compulsory ritual. These birds are com-  place from which they can check wheth-
     cern. When they are seemingly relaxed it   sites the species seeks. For food they will   monly known to live three to four years,   er things are “all clear.” This surveillance
     is possible they are simply showing off.    eat fruits and berries in colder months   but popular lore calls out a 10-year-old   is also an effort not to give away their
     However this heightened alertness adds   but they are primarily insectivorous dur-  that was banded in Iowa in 1979 and   nesting location to a possible predator.
     to their visual appeal and formidable   ing their breeding season. A member of   found in Alberta, Canada in 1989.   At our home the birds use the railing of
     character. Although eastern phoebes are   the flycatcher family, the eastern phoebe   We have had a nest under our deck   our elevated deck to scan the area before
     only 5 ½ inches to– 6 ¾ inches  with a   relies chiefly on insects—ants, flies, ticks,   most of the 40-plus years that we have   making a food delivery.
     wingspan of 10 to 11 inches they have a   bees, dragonflies, moths, and the like.   lived along the Maurice River. Selecting   Many birds hop or make short flights
     stately presence.                      In addition to claiming the railing   a location isn’t a heavy lift since eastern   from limb to limb. Phoebes tend to move
        He is actually calling for a mate. She   and the courtyard, our suitor flies from   phoebes will often make use of the same   primarily by direct flight. To enter the
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