December 2013 Bird Photo of the Month

Waiting for a fly © John J. Waite
Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)

Who can recognize this little nondescript bird?  What major ways can we use to identify it?  First, notice its shape and size to categorize this as a perching bird or passerine, because we can identify some birds just by their silhouette (small – 7 inches, pointed bill, thin legs, short tail). Next, the small, thick bill suited to catching insects in flight identifies it as a Flycatcher species. Then, observe its colors carefully to see the dark head, white throat and breast, gray/brownish sides and, most especially, its all-dark bill, with neither eye ring nor wing-bars. These features distinguish it from other North American Flycatchers as the Eastern Phoebe–photographed by John J. Waite with a Cannon Rebel XT, Sigma DG 500 at 5.6.

However, we don’t confine identification to size, shape, and color. All birds have their own unique call.  And the Phoebe gets its name from its voice, “Fee-ee—Bee,” in a rasping but characteristic 3-note call that often rings out across the garden especially on its breeding grounds.  The Phoebe is only a winter visitor to Florida, leaving at the first hint of spring to go north, sometimes all the way to Canada, to breed. 

Behavior is another major way to identify birds.  The Phoebe will alight by itself on an open branch, pumping its tail up and down, then flit out to catch an insect and return to the same or another open perch. The diversity of bird species is partly explained by their adaptations to a variety of different food sources, and we can use the food the bird is pursuing as another way to identify it.  Phoebes catch sawflies, grasshoppers, crickets, leafhoppers, wasps, and bees.  Why don’t they get stung?  Evidently the quick kill with their strong bills prevents stings.

Juanita Baker, Coordinator
Florida Bird Photo of the Month
Pelican Island Audubon Society

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