Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

April 17, 2010

Phoebe Fidelity

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:59 pm

It would be wrong to assume that the Phoebe bird got its name from the Greek goddess of brightness, but it would be logical. Phoebe, the Greek, was the daughter of Gaea the primal goddess of the earth (“the personification of the earth” as one source put it) and Phoebe, the bird, employs the riches of that very earth for building. Phoebes construct their nests out of mud, fresh moss, strips of fine grass, and hair. You can’t get much earthier than that. But, the reality is that the birds got their name based on a direct translation of their call which is a wheezy “phee-bee.” In other words, they are what they say they are. We merely provided the logical spelling (although the goddess is more commonly called Phoibe). It’s a good thing they don’t say “Hay-des” or “Bee-eelzhe-bub.”

I recently discovered a pair of these sprightly little flycatchers setting up shop under a boardwalk. The female was busily delivering fine strands of grass to add to her nest (see beginning photo). The male took no part in this activity. True to form, they had selected a spot adjacent to the water and concealed under the protective cover of a ledge as a site for their earthy nest. Also true to form, this pair exhibited true Grecian fidelity by returning to the same exact nesting location year after year. There were several old nests under the walk and the current one (see below) could have been an add-on to one of their older structures.

Now, I can’t be absolutely sure that these birds were the very same that built the earlier nests but I don’t need to consult the oracle at Delphi in order to get proof. That’s just what these little guys typically do. After spending the winter around the Gulf States and Mexico, they make their way back to the same exact location with pinpoint accuracy year after year. Part of this fidelity stems from the fact that proper nest sites are few and far between, so it behooves these birds to stick to known locations. Behoove, by the way, is from the Olde English Behooven and has nothing to do with Greek.

One of the first naturalists to discover this fact – the nest site fidelity thing, not the origin of the word behoove thing- was John James Audubon. Way back in 1804 Mr. Audubon found a pair of Phoebes nesting at the mouth of a cave located on his father’s property in Mill Grove, Pennsylvania. He wanted to keep track of his birds and carefully tied yarn around the nestling’s legs to act as a band. The birds consistently plucked these things off, but eventually a set of metallic thread bands stayed put. Audubon was delighted when, the following spring, he found that two of the banded birds returned to Mill Grove. Not only was this the first recorded incidence of bird banding in North America but it was also the first hint of Phoebe nest site fidelity. In Audubon’s case, the offspring were carrying on the family tradition.

One name that you will not often hear associated with the Phoebe is the “Big-headed bird,” but it too is a suitable designation. Take another look at the female bird (above and here) and you’ll see what I mean. The apparent size of the head, when compared to the rest of the body, is huge. Most of this impression is gained from the fact that the bird has a crest, but as an identifying feature it is a good trait. In fact, given this observation, one might easily assume that this little gal thinks highly of herself and is a bit of a prima donna goddess. That would be wrong, of course, because this is only a small gray mortal that says “Wee-be Phee-bees.”

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