For the Birds Radio Program: Eastern Phoebe

Original Air Date: June 8, 1987

Some people name their daughters after a bird that says its own name over and over.

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(Recording of an Eastern Phoebe)

Average people who wish to name their children after birds have only a few choices–mainly Martin, Robin, and Jay. There must be real people named Bob White, Jenny Wren, and Virginia Rail, I suppose, and there are bird nicknames like Swanie, Ducky, Goose, and Eagle-eyes, but they best fit a person with a sense of humor and so should not be stuck on a newborn. And forget using loon, coot, or cuckoo. Some of the most beautiful birds have names which are out of the question for human beings–Who knows anyone named “Scissor-tailed Flycatcher” or “Blackburnian Warbler”? Even if a mother’s favorite bird in the universe was the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, she’d certainly have to belong to another culture to name her daughter or son for one.

One of the prettiest names that a person can share with a bird is Phoebe. In Greek mythology, Phoebe was the goddess of the hunt and the moon, the daughter of Gaea and the twin sister of Apollo. Just to confuse people, a lot of Greek gods and goddesses went by two names, and in keeping with that tradition, Phoebe is also known as Artemis. Not only is Phoebe a name for our own moon, but astronomers also call the ninth satellite of Saturn Phoebe.

In spite of the rich history of Phoebe in mythology, our little flycatching bird called the Phoebe can’t trace its name to a goddess. The Eastern Phoebe, which is found only in North America, far from Greece, was named simply because it says “phoebe”–over and over and over.

(Recording of an Eastern Phoebe)

Phoebes are one of the first migrants to return to the Northland each spring. They’re often found near bridges, and so they’re one species of bird easily found and identified from a moving car. Phoebes are drab in color–dull brownish olive on the back and dull white beneath with no wingbars or other field marks. But what a phoebe lacks in color it makes up for in grace and style. The way to recognize a phoebe is by its habit of constantly wagging its tail up and down. It’s light and easy on the wing, making swift twists and turns and sudden tumblings as it catches tiny insects, reminding some of the graceful, silent dodging of a butterfly. Phoebes not only eat airborne bugs, they also sometimes scoop up small fishes from the shallow streams. They’re loved by many people in farm country–as much for their tame, gentle manner as for the fact that they eat lots of mosquitoes.

Phoebes build their nest out of mud and moss, usually near water. In early times they plastered the nest in a recess of a rock ledge on a ravine or gorge or in a cave, but since colonial times has built extensively on man-made structures, from out-houses and barns to windowsills, doorsills, porch rafters, and tops of shutters. But the favorite site is on the girders under bridges or trestles over water. Cowbirds lay their eggs in phoebe nests very often.

The phoebe was the first American bird ever to be banded. John James Audubon tied tiny lengths of colored thread on phoebe legs to prove that the same individuals return to their nest sites year after year. In spite of the successful study, he named his own daughter Lucy.

(Recording of an Eastern Phoebe)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”