I like Phoebes. Phoebes are interesting birds. They almost constantly flick their tails forward and backward. They are flycatchers. They capture most of their food on the wing, both the bird and their prey items, that is to say they catch flying insects inflight. They are cold tolerant, meaning they can winter farther north than other flycatchers.
Not all, but some of the birds that nest in our area remain here the entire winter. They manage to find food during some of the coldest days of winter, mainly by utilizing the north sides of fields and edges where the low winter sun creates warm microclimates. These relatively warm areas allow the bird’s prey items to become or remain active while the rest of the landscape may be frozen.
They can, and do, eat other food, such as small fruits and berries as well as some seeds. A study done in 1912 by Proffessor F. E. L. Beal (that’s Professor Foster Ellenborough Lascelles Beal) found in the stomachs of 370 individuals, “…89.23 percent of animal matter to 10.77 of vegetable.”
The professor found that throughout the year, the majority of the animal matter consisted of hymenoptera (sawflies, bees, wasps…), the rest, various other flying insects. The vegetable matter consisted of small fruits and seeds. The bulk of the vegetable matter was taken, “in the fall, winter, and early spring months,” which is consistent with the availability of flying insects during those seasons.
Although there is a surprising amount of insect activity during winter, it can’t be easy to find flying insects during some of the coldest, grayest days of winter. So, the next time you’re out in Explore the Wild or Catch the Wind, or hiking along a field edge in winter, and you see a small brown-gray bird with a slight greenish wash to its undersides perched on a shrub, grass stem, or fence post nervously wagging its tail fore and aft, suddenly sally forth, snatch something out of the air and just as suddenly resume its perch, think of the trouble that this little bird has to go through just to sustain itself. It’s no quick trip to the grocery store for these birds.
I like Phoebes.
Greg Dodge is a professional naturalist as well as a writer, videographer and producer of natural history DVDs. His images have been used in various TV productions, museum displays, and corporate videos. Above all, he has a fascination and passion for all things natural.
He can be found Tuesday thru Saturday in Explore the Wild, Catch the Wind, or on the Dinosaur Trail. Ask him what’s new in the wild!