The Understated Beauty of Eastern Phoebes

Eastern Phoebes are familiar to many people in the eastern half of North America, owing to their tendency to nest under bridges and the eaves of houses. They may not be splashy, but they have subtle elegance that I just love. They are also a wonderful subject for photography owing to their habit of perching in an exposed place, sallying out to catch flying insects, and then returning to the same perch. This individual favoured an iron gate post near its nest. I really appreciated it for photography as it made an uncluttered, pleasing and unusual perch.

In this photo, we see the phoebe’s rich brown head and back, black beak and eyes, almost non-existent wing bars, off-white chest flanked with grey, and a pale yellow wash to the belly and wing edges. There is something soothing to the eye in these soft tones.

Eastern Phoebes are among the earliest migrants to nest in the spring. This individual was one of a pair that nested on a neighbour’s house two years ago. I was able to capture these sweet birds repeatedly over the months while they were in parent mode.

This individual is a juvenile I captured this past summer. In the hatch-year bird, we note the orange gape, more prominent wing bars and messy grey chest feathers. I love the cocked head and watchful expression.

I photographed this adult Eastern Phoebe last summer as well. This one is of interest to me because of the bird’s posture: it has its crest feathers raised and has made itself as tall as possible, likely indicating aggression or fear.

An endearing habit of phoebes is that they habitually pump their tails up and down while perched. If you see a flycatcher in the distance and can’t distinguish between Eastern Phoebe or its near relation the Eastern Wood-Peewee, if you see tail pumping, you can be pretty sure it’s a phoebe. Why do they do it? Even the experts aren’t entirely sure. Here’s an article by David Sibley (of the Sibley Bird Guides) and a number of commenters debating the reason phoebes wag their tails (for the really serious bird geeks out there!):

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