PHOEBE BIRD (Dusky Flycatcher). The first of its family to come North, as well as the last to leave us for the winter, the phoebe appears toward the end of March to snap up the first insects warmed into life by the spring sunshine.
Grackles in the evergreens, red-wings in the swampy meadows, bluebirds in the orchard may assure us that summer is on the way; but the homely, confiding phoebe, who comes close about our houses and barns, brings the good news home to us every hour.
Pewit—phoebe, pewit—phoebe, he calls continually. As he perches on the peak of a building or other point of vantage, notice how vigorously he wags his tail when he calls, and turns his head this way and that, to keep an eye in all directions lest a bite should fly by him unawares.
Presently a mate comes from somewhere south of the Carolinas where she has passed the winter; for phoebes are more hardy than the rest of the family and do not travel all the way to the tropics. With unfailing accuracy she finds the region where she built her nest the previous season or where she herself was hatched. This instinct of returned direction is marvellous, is it not? Sometimes it is hard enough for us humans to find the way home when not ten miles away. Did you ever get lost? Birds almost never do.
Phoebes like a covering over their heads to protect their nests from spring rains, so you will see a domesticated couple going about the place like a pair of wrens, investigating niches under the piazza roof, beams in an empty barn loft and projections under bridges and trestles. By the middle of April a neat nest of moss and lichen, plastered together with mud and lined with long hair or wool, if sheep are near, is made in the vicinity of their home of the year before. The nursery is exquisitely fashioned—one of the best pieces of bird architecture you are likely to find.
Some over-thrifty housekeepers, nevertheless, tear down nests from their piazzas, because the poor little phoebes are so afflicted with lice that they are considered objectionable neighbours. Many wild birds, like chickens, have their life-blood drawn by these minute pests. But a thorough dusting of the phoebe’s nest with Persian powder would bring relief to the tormented birds, save their babies, perhaps, from death and keep the piazza free from vermin. No birds enjoy a bath in your fountain or water pan more than these tormented ones.
From purely selfish motives it pays to cultivate neighbours ever on the lookout for flies, wasps, May beetles, click beetles, elm destroyers and the moth of the cutworm. The first nest is usually so infested that the phoebes either tear it down in July, and build a new one on its site, or else make the second nest at a little distance from the first. The parents of two broods of from four to six ravenously hungry, insectivorous young, with an instinctive desire to return to their old home year after year, should surely meet no discouragement from thinking farmers’ wives.
Shouldn’t you think that baby phoebes, reared in nests under railroad bridges, would be fearfully frightened whenever a train thundered overhead?
Birds Every Child Should Know by Neltje Blanchan
Author of “Bird Neighbours,” “Birds that Hunt and Are Hunted,”
“Nature’s Garden,” and “How to Attract the Birds.”
NEW YORK GROSSET & DUNLAP
1907 by Doubleday, Page & Company
Alternative Title Sayornis
Creator Musselman, Mark
Location South Carolina
Publisher U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service;
Date created 2012-03-09