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Flight Lines: First flycatcher of spring defies convention

Eastern phoebe can be identified by its dark head with no eye-ring, lack of wing-bars, a tail it habitually dips downward, and a voice announcing its own name. Keith Corliss / Forum Communications Co.

There is any number of ways we can divide birds into groups: Pelagic (oceangoing) vs. land-based, precocial vs. altricial young, cavity nesting vs. nest building, or perhaps vegetarian vs. flesh-eating.

Among the birds that spring to mind when a person considers the flesh-eaters are hawks, eagles, falcons, and owls. But if we further define carnivores as those beasts which catch and eat live prey the club's membership is perhaps more broad than we would think. Some ducks, herons, and most water birds are included. Plus, if insects and other invertebrates are lumped into "live prey," then a lot of the seemingly benign species are in, such as warblers, vireos, flycatchers, and even hummingbirds.

In a very general sense, spring migration among the passerines (song birds) rolls north over a number of weeks with the seed-eaters leading the way. The insect eaters must, by inference, hold back until warmer weather has allowed enough insects to emerge before continuing along their flyways.

One local flycatcher annually defies this premise, often with our rivers still frozen and snow still covering the ground. Every spring, usually on some early April day, a familiar raspy "fee-bee" sound is heard in the woods along one of our local rivers announcing the arrival of the first eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe ). Fortunately it has the ability to supplement its diet with small fruits since bug life during this time of year is usually very limited.

Of the 37 species of flycatchers (Family: Tyrannidae) regularly found in the U.S. and Canada, only about 11 can be expected locally during the course of a year; none overwinter. Eastern phoebes are easily the first to appear in spring, often by weeks.

Like others of its ilk, an eastern phoebe feeds mainly by hawking insects. That is, it'll fly out from a sitting position, grab a bug in midflight, return to a perch, and eat its catch.

An ongoing dispute exists in the literature as to the origin of this bird's common name. Some sources claim the use of the word "phoebe" refers to one of the female Titans of Greek mythology. Others suggest the word is a phonetic rendition of the bird's song. It might be a little of both.

Three elements are most often present when eastern phoebes choose a nesting area: water, a bridge or some other structure, and woods. Once a suitable spot is selected an adobe-type nest is built atop a flat surface usually with an overhang such as an eave.

Nest site fidelity is well documented in this species, with birds returning to the same location year after year. In fact, it is believed this species was the subject of the first banding experiment in the U.S. when John James Audubon wrapped silver wire around the legs of a young eastern phoebe in 1804, only to find the same bird return in successive years.

This species is so closely tied to structures that it is very likely our most familiar flycatcher, at least to those living east of the 100th parallel. It's a medium sized bird (7") cloaked in dark, dusky, gray-brown upperparts with its large rounded head and tail darkest of all. A whitish breast is offset by a smudgy vest. Eastern phoebes exhibit little to no wing-bars, separating them from similar species.

Like some other flycatchers, eastern phoebe tails are often animated while perched, though in this species the first motion is down instead of up. Author Pete Dunne describes it by saying, "The bird signs its name with its tail."

For some reason the bird shuns the company of others. Rarely do you find more than one phoebe in any particular patch of woods. Even mated pairs don't spend much time together preferring instead to sit solo, usually on a conspicuous perch near a wooded clearing.

Now that other flycatcher species are arriving, separating eastern phoebes from similar ones is a bit more challenging. Still, its dark head, its lack of wing-bars, its small all-black bill, and its downward tail wag should be enough. Of course, once you hear those raspy two notes - "fee-bee" - well, it's a slam-dunk.