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Monday, March 06, 2006

Birds of the Mid-Atlantic #1: Eastern Phoebe

The eastern phoebe is usually one of the last migrants to leave in the fall and one of the first to return in the spring. This species is one of the most widespread and most easily recognized of all eastern flycatchers. Its breeding range covers most of the east coast as far north as Nova Scotia, and west through the Great Plains, as far northwest as the Northwest Territories. Phoebes can be found principally along streambanks and other wet areas, and are easily spotted as they wag their tails and call out fee-bee, fee-bee.

For the last several years I have considered phoebes to be a much better indicator of spring than American robins. This winter, though, has been a different story. I saw my first phoebe of the year on January 5, and have seen this species repeatedly since then. Data resulting from this year's Great Backyard Bird Count show that eastern phoebes have indeed been widespread over the south and mid-Atlantic regions. Some have even been reported as far north as Michigan and New England. Here is a map showing distribution for this winter.

Because of a change in the way the GBBC displays its data, it is difficult to compare this to maps from previous years. However, results from the Christmas Bird Count may help. Below is a graph of eastern phoebes found on the Christmas Birds Counts in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia from the 1980-81 season to the 2004-05 counts.

As you can see, there has been a slight increase during the past three decades, from less than .02 per party-hour in 1980-81 to about .06 per party-hour over the past few years. Like several other migratory birds such as the American robin, the eastern phoebe has been expanding its wintering range northward. Other birds have taken advantage of the many feeders provided in backyards. In the case of the phoebe, warmer winters have meant that more insects are available for more months of the year. Phoebes have also adapted themselves to eat berries during the colder periods of winter. The adaptability of phoebes and the ready availability of insects makes long and dangerous migrations unnecessary.

Yet, like other early migrants, the appearance of eastern phoebes remains a sign of the coming spring. Any day now I expect to hear the calls of eastern phoebes sounding from wooded patches all over the region.

This post marks a new series I am beginning in collaboration with the Blue Ridge Gazette. All such posts will be cross-posted between A DC Birding Blog and the Blue Ridge Gazette.



  • At Monday, 06 March, 2006, Blogger Leslie Shelor said…

    Lovely to know more about this wonderful bird. I don't see it here, wrong habitat, I suppose. But in other areas where I've lived it was a constant and cheerful resident.

  • At Monday, 06 March, 2006, Blogger The MacBean Gene said…

    There was a new visitor to our feeder this morning. It looked quite a bit like a phoebe. Since I'm not the best at identifying I can't be sure but it looked a lot like this fellow. He just sat there munching while the chicadees and titmice scurrried back and forth to the rhodo's. A pair of doves has recently discovered the seeds thrown on the deck and have become regular visitors.

  • At Monday, 06 March, 2006, Blogger D L Ennis said…

    Great post John! In the area that I live, for the past couple of years, Robins seem to be here year around.

  • At Tuesday, 07 March, 2006, Blogger John B. said…

    macbean - It might be a phoebe, but make sure that it isn't a junco. I am not sure how often phoebes come to feeders.

    DL - Robins are in DC year-round as well. In fact, some of the flocks I see in winter are bigger than the ones I see in summer.


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