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Letter From Skunk Hollow: Phoebes return at last, restoring natural balance

Prodigious flycatchers, these birds used to perch in rocky outcrops until human settlement brought them a range of better options.

The cool spring slightly delayed our phoebes' return this year.
Photo by Sallie Anderson

It was in the spring of 2011 that the phoebes first selected the front of our house as an ideal nesting spot, for reasons only another phoebe could understand.

It’s a nice enough house, with the deep eaves all around  that phoebes, as I’ve come to understand, are drawn to. But these birds chose a spot midway between front door and garage door, within several feet of each, right in the middle of automotive, human and feline traffic. You couldn’t pick a busier location in all of Skunk Hollow.

Their first attempt at nest-building involved placing bits of moss and mud atop a single large nail projecting horizontally from the siding. The nail was solidly placed, fully sheltered and about 7 feet off the ground. It does a fine job of holding up spruce garlands at Christmas, its primary purpose, but has foundational deficits as a nest platform.

Next they tried a spot behind the porch light I’d built and installed the previous autumn. Still sheltered from the sky, and maybe a little more private, but still in the traffic flow and now just 5 feet off the ground., with  enough space for a nest the size of a tennis ball.

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We found the moss and mud piled there on Easter Sunday after coming home from a day of crane-watching at Crex Meadows. It looked like avian vandalism to me, until Sallie explained the nesting preferences of phoebes, which left us three options: Let them fail and move on, actively discourage them, or improve their chosen location.

And so, at dusk on a blustery day, I cut a 6- by 7-inch piece of scrap cedar board and mounted it up high, just under the overhang, still skeptical that wild birds would really want to settle down in the midst of all our bustle.

Photo by Sallie Anderson
A mouth to feed.

But in a matter of days there was a good-sized mound, nearly as broad as the platform would allow and a couple of inches high. Shortly afterward a first clutch of eggs appeared, and a couple of weeks later we could see little yellow bills gaping above the nest rim.

Audubon’s first banding

Phoebes are flycatchers — highly prodigious flycatchers — and it is thought that they nested under rocky outcrops, overlooking prime bug-hunting territory, until human settlement advanced and created better options for them.

To a degree that many people find charming, but some find a nuisance, the eastern phoebe commonly builds its nest by mounding up mud and moss in the corners of barns, sheds and garages, in the hollows of bridges and under the ledges of downtown office buildings, in culverts and junked vehicles, woodpiles and wells,  and under the eaves of homes, park buildings, picnic shelters and other structures.

Phoebes are often described as “sociable” in their relationship with our species, which strikes me as a peculiar way of saying they tolerate our presence as a condition of sharing our space.

The Audubon field guide describes them as “extraordinarily tame at the nest,” and suggests that accounts for a phoebe being probably the first bird ever banded for study  — by Audubon himself, using a bit of silvered thread.

Ours stay on the nest during our comings and goings only so long as there are eggs that need warming. Otherwise they greet each entry and departure with a vigorous exit that begins with a sharp, downward swoop that brings them buzzing right past our ears. The sound is more than a little unnerving until you get used to it — imagine how a 10-pound bumblebee might sound flying by.

Sometimes they return to the nest just as I’m returning to the garage; I’ve watched them halt in midair, hovering like a hummingbird, then reverse course and fly to a nearby perch along the roof’s edge or on a nearby spruce branch, flicking their tails up and down till I’ve moved out of view.

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phoebe in flight
Photo by Sallie Anderson
A phoebe swoops out of its nest.

They raised the typical two broods in 2011, despite months of ceaseless nest expansion and improvement, then left to spend the winter in the southern states or possibly Mexico.

They came back in the spring of 2012 —we think these were the same birds, and phoebes typically do re-use their nests, so long as they remain available and sufficiently free of parasites — and raised two more broods.

Meanwhile, the nest expanded to about twice the height of the previous autumn. Its walls grew thicker as the last wispy, grassy bits were replaced with moss and mud. Now it looked like a permanent installation.

A very close encounter

In “Life Histories of North American Flycatchers, Larks, Swallows and Their Allies” (1942), a remarkable phoebe encounter of one H.H. Brimley is preserved for the ages.

Brimley was deer hunting in North Carolina, at the end of November, and as he stood with his rifle pointed at the ground he noticed that mosquitoes were all around him —unusual for that time of year, but the weather was warm.

A faint fluttering of wings caused me to look down, and I saw a Phoebe … trying to alight on my rifle barrel. Failing to secure a firm grip on the smooth surface of the metal, the bird slid down the barrel until the front sight was reached, where it secured the grip desired, and there it perched.

It showed no sign of fear or nervousness and in a few seconds flew up and picked a mosquito off my hands, which were not more than a foot distant from its perch. Then, it picked others off the front of my coat, off my sleeves, and several more off my hands, meanwhile perching indiscriminately on my hands, sleeves, and gun barrel, though seeming to prefer the last.

Finally the Phoebe discovered that my face seemed to be attracting more mosquitoes than any other part of my person so he transferred his attention to that part of my anatomy, and found a new perching place on the top of my hunting cap.

In picking mosquitoes off my face, the sharp points of the bird’s bill were noticeably felt at every capture, and it was the irritation caused by a succession of these pricks that finally caused me to dispense with its attentions.

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When I decided to end the incident, I found a difficulty in doing so. I had presumed that any decided movement on my part would drive my little friend away, but this bird was not of the scary kind. He continued to perch on my head and pick mosquitoes off my face even after I had started to move around. …

Did we drive them away?

This spring, as the weeks of April and then early May slid by without a sighting, we concluded that the phoebes weren’t coming back after all. Migrating birds can experience mortality in the range of 80 percent per year, Sallie informed me, so it seemed more than possible they’d met their end.

Or perhaps decided on a better neighborhood.

For the second spring in a row we’ve been  sprucing up an old sailboat, and our activities have surrounded the phoebe nest with a sprawling catastrophe we call The Boatyard — sawhorses and lumber, hoses and buckets, power tools and extension cords, painting debris and boat components in various stages of incompletion scattered throughout the garage and spilling across the front deck and driveway.

Painting has been the main endeavor this year, so the elements of noise and dust and noxious chemical scent  have risen appreciably. Who could blame a pair of attentive phoebe parents and proud nest improvers for opting to raise this year’s broods in pleasanter surroundings?

But it turns out they were only watching the Weather Channel from their villa in Acapulco, waiting for the temperatures to rise and the rain to let up a little.

On a mid-May afternoon I was up at the bow, sanding primer, when I felt that 10-pound bumblebee go past my ear and there they were: two of them, swooping  around the boat, up into the trees, down along the lawn, in what looked like aerial combat but I’m pretty sure was quite the opposite.

A few days later we lifted a little mechanic’s inspection mirror above the nest and saw the result — five pale phoebe eggs and a sixth, dark one we suspect might have been dropped off by a cowbird.

the brood
Photo by Sallie Anderson
On Saturday the nest held a new brood of five or six hatchlings.

And on Saturday  the nest held a new brood of five or six hatchlings (it’s hard to count them precisely without getting too close for too long).

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The adults have now taken to perching in nearby trees, leaving the nest space to the growing brood, ferrying back and forth with food despite the racket of power sanders and saws.

And some days, when our own work is done, Sallie and I take cocktails to The Boatyard and watch the phoebes vacuuming up mosquitoes, returning our favor of the nest platform in a happy bit of natural balance.