Fall seems to be a sad time of year. We lose things – warmth, leaves and favorite song birds.
However, bird migration is an astounding phenomenon. That these small, seemingly delicate creatures can travel such distances twice every year is a bit of an enigma. Of course, there are benefits to this bi-annual movement. For most birds, food supply is the main trigger to stimulate this restless response to move south, but changes in day length, lower temperatures and genetic predisposition contribute to the urge to migrate. Some species travel thousands of miles, while others may move much shorter distances. Each time they travel the same path with little variation.
First year birds navigate their first migration on their own – an astounding feat, since they have never seen their winter home before. Then, they are able to navigate back north months later to the area they were born. Birds use landmarks, the sun, stars, earth’s magnetic field and perhaps other means that are not well understood.
The Eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) was the first North American bird to be banded by John James Audubon in 1804. He tied a small silver thread around the legs of nestling phoebes to document their return the following spring. Phoebes are among the first migratory birds to arrive in spring, usually late March, and about the last to leave in autumn, returning to their winter woodland edge habitat in Southern U.S. and Central America. They also are early birds when starting their nesting season, usually as soon as the male is able to attract a female to a promising site. Phoebes are tolerant of human activity, nesting on any handy ledge on porches, bridges, culverts, barns and other out-buildings.
Phoebes will often perch in plain sight; making them the easiest of the flycatchers to identify as it bobs its tail and calls out the raspy FEE-bee or FEE-bulee song. Phoebes are not social birds spending most of their time alone even when breeding. Apparently they also refuse to obey refuge traffic signs as evidenced by the photo.
Although fall can be a little sad and winter is long, cold and dark, we can still enjoy all the birds that flock to our feeders and don’t migrate, and also look forward to an early spring…and phoebes.