The Phoebes Are Back! – Ahh, How a Bird Can Lift the Heart… – by Jesse Wolf Hardin

by Jesse Wolf Hardin on April 7th, 2010
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It Takes But a Little Bird To Lift the Heart

by Jesse Wolf Hardin

Sayornis saya
Order: Passeriformes
Family: Tyrannidae (Flycatchers)

She’s back!  And she has touched me like no other bird, I confess, with her simple yet incredibly sweet whistling calls so sadly missed during her lengthy Winter absence.  “Pd-eer,” she sings in occasional relaxed cadence, “Pd-eer, Pd-eer,“ as though a special sharing and gift for me.

I don’t mean that she’s a single individual, of course, since I have enjoyed the same April return to the eaves of our cabin since shortly after I built it, over 25 years ago now.  What I am so attached to is no doubt a lineage, sequential generations of these wondrous little flycatchers, with certain broods producing an offspring that will answer to call to root and bond at a cellular level like I have, to a particular place, to what is for us not only essential habitat but our home.

She makes a sound for me as she brakes and flutters when entering her nest, that she doesn’t make any other time, a lovely, bubbly trilling, followed by a few contented “Pd-weep, Pd-weeps” as lands for only a few seconds before flying about again.  No matter how heavy my thoughts or serious my work, every time I hear her landing trill my heart is lifted.

Within a short while she will be attended by a mate, in a monogamous relationship that will bear from 3 to 7 white eggs typically speckled with reddish brown freckles.  These she will sit on and incubate for 12 to 14 days, making constant trips back and forth to the nest to feed her hatchlings thereafter.  Surveying the landscape like a hawk from a convenient perch, this small fluffball will swiftly swoop down on any airborne insect that she sees, sometimes hovering over the tall grass until the perfect opportunity to strike.  While appearing the very epitome of sweetness and preciousness, she will be a protective mother who vigorously drives off any other birds that dare to venture near.  One of the words used to describe a collective of Phoebes is a “swatting”, perhaps as a nod to the earnest and tireless way that they box one bug after another from the sky.

I actually loved and praised my succession of Summer resident long before I knew their name.  For the longest time I had difficulty even seeing one clearly enough to make an identification with the help of our Sibley’s Guide.  This was due in part to their small size, gray backs and buff bellies, but also because they’re so active, only briefly tending to an important survey before dashing off, and otherwise seeming thrilled to be swooshing and rolling about through the air.  What we have here are Say’s Phoebes, named after the naturalist Thomas Say, a little larger than both the common Eastern Phoebe and the local Black Phoebe with its white belly and charcoal toned top.  The Say’s Phoebes are said to mostly spend their Winters in California and western Oregon, yet nest and breed along a huge swath of territory from the bosom of old Mexico all the way to Alaska, the Yukon and the northern Mackenzie, further north than any other flycatcher by far.  Throughout, they frequent more or less open ecotones like prairie and tundra, as well as riparian zones like the river canyon cradling and supporting the Anima Sanctuary.

Like so many species of plants and animals on this planet, the Says’ population is on a slow but steady decline.  The reasons for this are the most obvious and common, a continuous loss of habitat to development as a burgeoning human population understandably seeks to meet it needs for housing, food and roads.  We can only hope that their homes and weedy feeding grounds will be preserved wherever their role as a voracious predator of sometimes troublesome insects is valued, or where their trills and pd-weeps are cherished like here…

…and hope, as well, that we can come to see every living thing – furry or leafen, soft or prickly – as no less dear.

(Post and Forward Freely)

(For more reflections on nature and place, go to the blog archives at right, or to

Categories: Jesse Wolf Hardin – Essays & Tales, Our Life in The Wilderness, Sense of Place

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