The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, June 4, 2010


Eastern Phoebe

An Eastern Phoebe. (Photo by Alan Ankers)

In a town with enough mosquitoes to plug an oil leak, you have to love flycatchers. The Eastern Phoebe is one of them, a member of the Tyrant Flycatcher family of birds, and soon we will have more. They are raising families in town and at least two nest sites are being watched.

Name: The Eastern Phoebe is Sayornis phoebe. The common name and the species epithet are taken from the sound of the song, an emphatic ‘FEE-be’. The genus name is made up of the last name of the naturalist Thomas Say and the Greek ‘ornis’ meaning bird. Charles Lucien Bonaparte, who came to America in 1823 with the same determination to conquer American ornithology as his uncle Napoleon had to conquer countries, coined the genus name to honor his friend, Say. Bonaparte did most of his work at the museum level, relying on others for fieldwork. Say was primarily an entomologist but nonetheless collected bird specimens for Bonaparte. Some turned out to be previously undescribed species including another phoebe which Bonaparte named Say’s Phoebe (Sayornis saya).

Distinguishing characteristics: The Eastern Phoebe is a smallish bird with a brown-gray back, dark head, pale chest and belly and a long dark tail. It has a black bill and black feet. It does not have the ring around the eye that is typical of many other flycatchers and only the faintest of wing-bars. It is best recognized by its ‘Fee-be’ song and the habit of wagging its tail when perched.

Nesting: Phoebes are one of the earliest migrants to return after winter. They show up in Carlisle around the last week of March. They like to build their nests on a ledge where there is an overhang and so they often choose places on manmade structures like bridge girders or under the eave of a house. The nest is made of weeds, grasses and mud. It is covered on the outside with moss and on the inside with fine grasses and hair. Sometimes the nest is on a very small ledge up against a wall in which case it will be more or less semi-circular and plastered to the wall with mud. If it is on a plank or girder it will be more circular and have less mud.

Carlisle nests: Alan Ankers reported “One nested for a couple of years under the roof of the sign kiosk at the entrance to the NWR behind Foss Farm.” Jean Keskulla of Concord Street has been watching a nest where the eggs hatched on May 23. Luisa Nazzaro of Maple Street has also been keeping an eye on a nest on her porch. At first there were 6 eggs, but she noticed that one had been pushed out and there were 2 non-phoebe eggs in the nest. She believed them to be house sparrow eggs and removed them. Three of the eggs hatched about 2 weeks ago and now there are at least two healthy chicks and perhaps a third. (It is not always easy to look into a phoebe nest because they are typically close to an overhang.) The chicks will probably fledge by this weekend and Luisa will be happy to put the screens back on her porch and Carlisle will have a little more help with the mosquitoes.

Cowbirds: Cowbirds don’t make nests. Instead they lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and let those parents raise them. Phoebes are common victims of nest parasitism by cowbirds. Last year Alan Ankers saw a phoebe fledgling that had defied the odds and survived the presence of a cowbird chick. Normally the cowbird would crowd the phoebe out.

Feeding: Eastern Phoebes like other Tyrannid flycatchers are mainly insect eaters. They perch, wait, and watch for an insect to fly into range, then sally forth and snatch it out of the air. Phoebes will also watch for insects or spiders on the ground. They are also known to hover over a substrate and glean insects from it. Jean Keskulla has seen one of her phoebes hovering over a white-tailed deer and picking off flies.

Place in history: The Eastern Phoebe was the first bird to be ‘banded’ in North America. In 1804, John James Audubon attached a thread to the leg of an Eastern Phoebe to see if it returned in subsequent years.

Sources: Cornell Lab of Ornithology at; National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America; The Sibley Guide to Birds, David Allen Sibley. Bonaparte information at; Peterson Field Guide to Birds’ Nests, Hal H. Harrison; Alan Ankers, Jean Keskulla, and Luisa Nazzaro for personal observations.

Submissions and ideas for the Biodiversity Corner are encouraged on any species that occurs in the wild and was seen in Carlisle. Send a note, a photo, or the whole column to If you have a mystery species, send that too. ∆

Bellows Hill Road has a new resident, a Barred Owl fl edgling.
(Photo by Jody Isaacs)

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