Wild South Florida — Eastern Phoebe
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Eastern Phoebe
eastern phoebe
Eastern phoebe, photographed at Green Cay Nature Center in Boynton Beach.
eastern phoebe

In Greek mythology, Phoebe is one of the original Titans, the daughter of Uranus and Gaia. The word itself means bright and radiant. So what does this have to do with how the eastern phoebe and its kin got their name? Absolutely nothing.

Instead, the name comes from the call these birds make: FEE-BEE. Unromantic, but descriptively accurate. Sort of like the killdeer, which in no way is capable of killing anything the size of a deer but makes the sound KILL-DEER.

Scientifically, the eastern phoebe is known as Sayornis phoebe, and is a member of Tyrannidae, the tyrant flycatcher family. It's the largest and most diverse bird families in the world, with members found in almost all of the Western Hemisphere.

Eastern phoebes are mostly migratory birds, breeding during the summer in Canada's far north and most of the eastern United States, traveling south into Florida, Mexico and parts of the Caribbean to spend the winter. They are found year-round in the Southeast north of Florida; in recent decades there have been a few eastern phoebes found nesting in Florida as far south as Everglades National Park.

Most, however, arrive here in September and October, and return north in March and April.

Most members of Tyrannidae are on the drab side, and the eastern phoebe is no exception. Eastern phoebes are mostly dull brown on top, with a grayish-white chest and belly that might show a hint of yellow. Eastern phoebes are slightly larger than a warbler, with a body length of about 7 inches and a wingspan that approaches a foot.

eastern phoebe

The beak is flat and relatively short, perfect for catching the eastern phoebe's favorite foods: bugs, including such delights as ticks and millipedes. They'll also down a few seeds and fruit. In winter, they're most likely to be found along the edges of forests and in openings. They're often seen perched in trees, on fences and utility lines.

Eastern phoebe females are the nest builders, and by bird standards, what they build is on the elaborate side, taking as long as two weeks to construct. The nests are made of mud reinforced with grass and moss, and lined with feathers and animal hair. They're built almost exclusively on the sides of old buildings, bridges, culverts and other man-made structures that provide some cover and protection for their offspring. They're one of the few birds that will reuse an old nest; they've even been known to renovate old robins' nests. Open concept, no doubt.

Females lay a clutch of as many as six eggs once or twice a year. They take about two weeks to incubate and once hatched two or three more weeks before they fledge.

Links for Eastern Phoebe Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology National Audubon Society National Geographic Society
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