by Barbara Walvoord
From Lathrop Lamp Post April 20, 2017
Our phoebes are back! Newly returned from their winter homes in the south, they are perching on tree branches or fences. Our human residents often forget to wear their name tags in public, but the phoebe says its name over and over in a two-toned song: “FEEE be.” You can hear them at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Phoebe/id.
You might also interpret this song as “FEED me.” Our phoebes need food for the hard work of building their nests, mating, laying their eggs, and feeding their young.
And what we need to feed our phoebes is—BUGS!
The eastern phoebe (Saynornis phoebe) is a “flycatcher,” though it also eats wasps, beetles, dragonflies, butterflies, moths, midges, and cicadas. Perched on a branch, low rooftop, or fence, in a yard or open woods, our phoebe will wag its long tail up and down restlessly, and then swoop to catch its dinner in mid-air. Sometimes it may snatch a spider, tick, or millipede from the ground or some other surface.
Where there are no human buildings, phoebes nest on cliff faces, affixing their mud and grass nests to indentations or crevices in the rock. At Lathrop, they use crevices in our buildings and bridges. As we consider putting up new buildings, the phoebes will have more places to nest. But at the same time, we will be destroying some of the meadows that yield the phoebe’s food. As Douglas Tallamy argues in Bringing Nature Home, when human development destroys wild spaces, humans need to use their landscaped spaces to provide some of the same benefits. Two scientific facts should inform our plans at Lathrop: (1) 90% of insects eat only native plants; and (2) pesticides and herbicides are a chief cause of the decline in both insect and bird populations. As we plan for the future at Lathrop, we need to plan, as well, for the future of our Phoebes: use native plants, rather than aliens, in our landscapes, and reduce our use of pesticides and herbicides.