BY Kate Crowley
I don’t know when the Eastern Phoebes returned to our property this year because we were gone for the entire month of April and part of May, but the average over the past ten years has been mid to later April. When we returned the male was in his usual location, back by the barn singing his sweet, raspy “fee-bee, fee-bee’ song, with the second phrase ending with a bit of a tremolo. This call is repeated over and over, especially while the male is seeking a mate. It will continue throughout June and July, but with less intensity and frequency, unless he seeks another mate.
The Phoebes have been coming to our property since we moved here 30 years ago (and probably long before that). They have used different locations for their small, neat cup nests, but quite long ago they discovered the light fixtures in the barn, where the horses used to stay were ideal nest sites. They built two identical nests, one above each light fixture. These were made with a combination of mud, moss, grasses and horse hair.
Each year they would return and use the same nests and I really couldn’t tell if they had done anything to improve or change them. When I got on a ladder and went up to check them out – when they are empty - I have been surprised to find that they really aren’t ‘cups’, but barely have any indentation at all. I have wondered for years, how they were able to lay 4-5 eggs in this small space and not have the chicks fall out after the eggs hatch. But year after year they appear to have been successful raising at least one brood, based on the amount of droppings that we find on the floor beneath the nest.
A few years ago, Mike began to convert the back end of the barn into a workshop. This meant the space where the Phoebes have been nesting would be enclosed. I was feeling badly that they would lose access to their long term nests, but hoped they’d find a suitable alternative in our woods or on one of the other buildings.
Turns out these birds are tightly bonded to this location, probably because they have been so successful over the years and it is so well protected. Even though the barn now has doors on both ends, there is enough of a gap on one that the adults could fly in and out. Mike has not been able to work much this summer out in the ‘shop’ because of our work schedule and because of the mosquito population, so the little Phoebe’s had lots of privacy and time to lay eggs, incubate and raise their young. It takes about two weeks for incubation and another two to three weeks after they hatch, growing larger and more and more packed into that small space.
While I knew the parents could easily fly in and out, I worried about how the young would manage. Generally, their first flights are short and outside they would fly to the nearest branch where they would rest and wait for their parents to feed them. We did not see any of the young leave the nest, but one morning last week, Mike went into the shop and one of the adult birds flew out and one of the young skittered across the floor. After he told me about this, I went out to the barn to check it out.
Sure enough, there was the little bird sitting on the floor with its wings spread to the sides. It didn’t budge as I bent down and picked it up and cradled it in my hands. It was fully feathered, but obviously not long out of the nest. I wasn’t sure what to do with it – putting it back up in the nest would probably not work, so I placed it on the surface of the workbench, where it sat perfectly still. I left hoping the parent would come back to feed it.
I returned later in the day and found it still sitting on the work bench, but in a different spot. This time when I came close it fluttered up and across the room. I picked it up again and put it back on the workbench and left with fingers crossed.
The next morning when I went out to check on it, it was still there, but fluttered across the room when I got close. This time it landed on the floor, close to the door. As I bent down to pick it up, it hopped through a crack at the bottom of the door and into the grass behind the barn. The door was locked from the outside, so I quickly went around and searched for it, finding it with wings spread out on top of some tall grass. Rain was on its way, so I brought it back in.
Now I was torn about what to do; should I take it to a wildlife rehab facility or should I just let nature take its course? I contacted Wildwoods in Duluth for advice, but decided to let one more night pass before I would take it north. When I checked later in the day, it was cheeping in a plaintive way, which made my heart sad. I had not seen a parent, but I knew that didn’t mean it wasn’t around.
The next morning when I went to the barn, there was no sign or sound of the fledgling. I knew it had found the crack under the door once and could find it again and so I chose to believe it had finally reached the stage when it could fly far enough to get into some trees. The survival rate for fledglings is 50% in their first year. There are so many challenges, obstacles and dangers in the world for birds; I had wanted to give this little Phoebe a better chance. In the long run, it is only efforts by all of us that will really give the birds a fighting chance. Things like preserving habitat, providing nesting sites, fighting Climate Change (a big one), getting poisons out of the environment and teaching others to know and love birds.