Bird Files: Eastern Phoebes Sing in Spring

  • The first Eastern Phoebe banded by Luke DeGroote this spring.

April 17, 2015

The song of the Eastern Phoebe may not be the most melodious, but it’s music to my ears. It means that the forest will soon be filled with fiddleheads, trout lilies, and the sounds of other birds. 

Eastern Phoebes arrive in Western Pennsylvania in late March or early April. Exactly when depends a lot on how tough winter has been. That’s because they eat flying insects, and come back to our region when there’s enough food. They’re bigger and have more muscle than other insect-eating birds. And they can store more fat. So if March decides to go out like a lion, phoebes can hunker down and survive winter’s last hurrah.

Phoebes are also early nesters, getting started almost as soon as they arrive, even before the trees have leafed out.  Did you ever have a bird fly out from under an eave when you walk by? There’s a good chance it was an Eastern Phoebe. They frequently nest under human-made overhangs such as bridges and roofs. And, because phoebes frequently reuse nests—that bird you have nesting under your eave may even be the same individual returning year after year to your home.

Eastern Phoebes are easy to spot.  Roughly the size of a bluebird, they have a dark grey-brown back, and light cream-colored belly. Their large squared head helps support a large flycatching beak and mouth. Eastern Phoebes also have a habit of wagging their tail as they wait on a perch for insects to fly by. 

So this April keep an eye peeled and an ear out for this early flycatcher, because within the Eastern Phoebe’s chant is also the promise of spring.

Bird calls for the audio recording of this segment from The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, recorded by Randolph S. Little and Robert Bethel