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Sayornis phoebe

Tina Hartell

In early March, I applaud the return of the Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe). While it is kind of like some of my dinner-party guests: first to come, last to leave, and voraciously hungry; it is also notoriously friendly and chooses to build its nest close to us – perhaps to keep an eye on us – but more likely because we build such even, horizontal structures. The phoebe loves to tuck in under an eave or rafter to build its mud and moss nest. Unique among songbirds, it is a loyal homeowner and will return year after year to reconstruct and nest in the same structure often building over old eggs or nestlings that didn’t make it. 

But more importantly the phoebe is a flycatcher meaning that, in the current absence of brown bat, I rely on it to do what it can to reduce the population of my fair-weather nemesis: the black fly. So I applaud its early return in March, wave farewell in October, and enjoy keeping up with two broods the phoebe will often have each season. 

Here is one of two phoebes who have built in the rafters on the northern side of the sugarbarn.  Her nest is on the western end and these, most likely her second brood, are her three nestlings. What is curious about her nest, is it seems she has displayed some abnormal nesting behavior. The entire rafter from east-to-west displays remnants of partially-built nests. Is she claiming territory? Perfecting her technique? A little research suggests something different: she was confused. A 1977 paper published in Auk note that phoebes can become confused by repetitive structures and will start their nests over again until all similar areas are used and one is finally chosen and the nest completed.