Blog Series: Bird of the Month

Thanks to series author Dan Sardaro, former Awbury Arboretum intern, novice birder, and author of 2018 and 2019’s “Pollinators– from wasps to wind” and “Series on Natural Fibers ” 

October: Eastern Phoebe

The year is 1804–a year in which the natural world was being cracked open as if it were a bird’s egg, finally opening to the first light of spring. Centered in this age of discovery, a young amateur scientist named John James Audubon found himself living at Mill Grove, Pennsylvania, a hub of new biological findings located at the intersection of the Perkiomen Creek and the Schuylkill River. Awestruck by the many species of mammals and birds that surrounded him in this green haven, he began taking close note of precisely what it was he was seeing. Namely, the birds caught his attention the most.

Audubon wanted to track the population and flight paths of these birds since any existing records were practically non-existent. So, he began to tie lightweight silver threads around the legs of some of the birds before releasing them in order to keep track of them as they ventured north or south depending on the migration season. Audubon was the first to do this type of species monitoring, effectively beginning the practice of “bird banding” as we call it today.

The first bird he caught and banded was what he named the “peewee flycatcher,” a bird he and his eventual wife became fascinated with as they saw it build a nest in a cave near his homestead. Today, we know this bird as the eastern phoebe, or as it pertains to us, October’s bird of the month.

The eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) carries a celebrity reputation within the birding community.

Considering its part in ushering in the modern age of birding, it has a special place in many bird watchers on the East Coast, where the bird can be found. Part of the larger flycatcher family, the eastern phoebe is a homely-looking bird comprised of a brownish-gray top and wings and an off-white underbelly, although a faint yellow hue may also be seen in the underbelly this time of year as they migrate back south. Their beaks are rather short and the feathers on their head are sometimes raised into a small peak.

Eastern phoebes, while not the most eye-catching compared to their various neighbors, do however exhibit a unique style of behavior not often replicated in other kinds of birds. These flycatchers act human-like since they build their mud and grass nests in nooks on houses, bridges, and barns. Plus, we could consider them renters, as these birds often reuse the same nest year after year. Seemingly very tame, these birds also love to perch for a while as if they were sitting on their porch looking out over their front lawn. This, along with the occasional tail wagging and the soft “fee-bee” call they produce, makes the eastern phoebe relatively easy to identify.

Usually, these birds can be found by streams and bodies of water closely watching the wasps, bees, beetles, flies, and grasshoppers that fly overhead. When ready, they will catch one mid-air and eat it themselves or bring it back to their nest for their chicks.

As we start to wind down the Year of the Birds at Awbury Arboretum, it may be poignant to draw connections between the world of birds and our own lives. Audubon, young and finding his own way in a fledgling country, wrote about his personal growth adjacent to the lives of the birds he observed. Referencing his extensive time watching the Eastern Phoebe, he wrote: “Connected with the biography of this bird are so many incidents relative to my own, that could I with propriety deviate from my the proposed method, the present volume would contain less of the habits of birds than of those of the youthful days of an American woodsman.”

Audubon truly captures the mystique that many feel in the birding community today. The act of seeking, spotting, and being present with any bird in the wild can be a powerful feeling for some, just like it was for Audubon over 200 years ago. Looking back in history can show us that our ties to the natural world have always been present – now it is our turn to relish in the many ways in which birds have enriched our lives.

For more information about the eastern phoebe, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website. And for advice on what types of feeders may attract this Flycatcher or other birds you enjoy, visit their Project FeederWatch for community-based tips, resources, and photographs.

Sources:
https://audubon.nyhistory.org/eastern-phoebe-sayornis-phoebe-bird-banding/
https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/eastern-phoebe
https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Phoebe/overview

2022 is the Year of Birds at Awbury Arboretum, and as part of our celebration we will be featuring a special bird each month.

Click here to see the entire year’s schedule.