By Bill Pulliam
If you are out in the countryside anywhere in Tennessee, you are likely to come across a small gray bird with drab plumage but lots of personality. It calls and flies around actively through the day, and especially likes to be near houses, barns, fences, roadsides and other conspicuous places. This is the Eastern Phoebe, a favorite of many in our area.
Phoebes are flycatchers and are probably the best know member of this family around here. Flycatchers are distinctive as a group, with an upright posture and relatively large
head balanced by a tail that is usually kept pointing down. Most are aggressive and noisy birds, earning the formal name of “tyrant flycatchers” for the ones that live in the Americas. There are similar flycatchers in the Old World, but they are not very closely related to our little tyrants.
Flycatchers are distinctive in their actions as well as in their physiques. Most species hunt by perching on twigs, snags and other lookouts in the open and sailing out to snatch flying insects right out of the air. They are frequently seen on fence rows, power lines and other human structures. Some species, including the phoebes, regularly “wag” their tails when perched by flicking them up and down periodically. Whether or not a flycatcher wags its tail is often a key clue to telling you which species of flycatcher it is.
Phoebes are particularly fond of human habitations, making them well known and often well liked. Phoebes also like to be close to water, and are often found near bridges and at the shores of ponds. The Eastern Phoebe also happens to be one of the drabbest of all flycatchers in its coloration, being dressed in nothing but shades of gray with faint hints of olive drab. Its upper parts are muted dark gray, deepening a bit to slaty colors on the head. Its breast and belly are pale gray to whitish, with sometimes a hint of yellow-green on younger birds. The wings are almost unmarked, with just faint and variable wingbars. Its face and tail are unadorned with spots, stripes or any other flashy marks.
Our Phoebe is the “Eastern” Phoebe because there are two other phoebes farther west. The paler buffy Say’s Phoebe lives in the Great Plains westward through the drier areas to the Pacific coast and through Mexico. They have been seen a few times in Tennessee, but are a quite rare bird here. The handsome Black Phoebe, with its crisp black-and-white coloration, is a bird of the southwest and California, south to South America. All three of the phoebes are quite similar in their habits, especially their fondness for water, and all are considered to be very closely related. Another slightly more distant relative is the spectacular Vermilion Flycatcher, the males of which wear flaming red and rich chocolate brown plumage. This bird is also a very rare visitor to Tennessee; it is not a sight that is soon forgotten.
Our Eastern Phoebes seem to be totally unaware of how drab they are in comparison to some of their cousins. They are loud and boisterous, which combined with their fondness for buildings and tolerance for the presence of people makes this plain gray bird one of our most obvious natives. They frequently nest on porches and under eaves, making use of anything that provides a small platform. You can put up a small shelf under your eaves to encourage them to nest there rather than on your porch light if you like; the decorative sign that says “Phoebe” hanging underneath the nesting shelf is entirely optional.
The Eastern Phoebe has one other trait that makes it stand out among our local flycatchers: it is the only one that normally spends the winter here. During the cold months when flying insects are scarce, it supplements is diet with berries. Sumac and poison ivy berries are especially favored. It is worth remembering that poison ivy is an important winter food source for many birds, so if you have a tree in an out-of-the-way place with a rampant growth of poison ivy climbing high in to it, you can do your local birds a favor by just leaving it rather than hacking down the poison ivy.
The Phoebe’s characteristics of being nondescript in plumage, loud, conspicuous and here all year give it another distinction: It is perhaps middle Tennessee’s most often misidentified bird. Though it is the only flycatcher expected to be here in winter, there are four other flycatcher species that are common here in the warmer months, plus several that are seen less often. Phoebes are regularly mistaken for all of these other flycatchers. Their dull and subtle plumage combines with changing light and viewing angles to create many illusions and misinterpretations. Here are some typical examples of how this happens.
Perched on a fence facing into the morning sun, the light and shadows make its breast appear bright white and it wings and back look nearly black. “An Eastern Kingbird,” you might think.
A younger bird with more yellowish tints on its underparts sits in a shady area with greenish light reflecting off the grass. The illusion of bright yellow underparts causes you to conclude, “A Great Crested Flycatcher!”
A bird that happens to have more conspicuous wingbars than average is sitting quietly, not wagging its tail, and you think, “Eastern Wood-Pewee.” Or this same bird if the light makes it look more greenish, and it is waging its tail, can lead your thoughts to “Acadian Flycatcher!”
Flycatchers are not always the easiest group to identify, and even the most experienced birders will get thrown for a loop by some birds. Still, in all of these cases, a closer look will correct the misimpression and you will realize that you are looking at your old friend, the Phoebe. The coming winter months are a good opportunity to become familiar with our one wintertime flycatcher and all the different ways even the same individual bird can look in different moments. Then, in April when the other species begin to arrive, you will be much better equipped to correctly identify our most misidentified bird, along with the other species comprising one of our most difficult groups: Little Tyrants.
Bill Pulliam got started in birdwatching by his junior high science teacher in 1974, and has been an avid birder ever since in 48 U.S. states and 7 foreign countries. He is currently the Tennessee editor for eBird, a online project that compiles millions of observations from tens of thousands of birders around the world.