Eastern Phoebe

Tim Goodwin

I’m at the cabin this morning sitting on this screen porch I wrote about a few years ago in my book Within These Woods (2015) Riverfeet Press. An Eastern Phoebe is flitting around and talking to me as it had been five or six years ago. I’m assuming it is an offspring of the one I wrote about in this essay. Sometimes it is hard as a narcissistic species sitting as the self-appointed pinnacle of creation to forget that no matter what is happening to us, with us, or because of us, the rest of the natural world within which we are deeply embedded just trundles right along.

And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all things as they must live together like one being.
-Black Elk, Oglala Lakota medicine man

The air is cool this morning. The screened porch faces the lake on the northern side of the cabin and is ten feet above the ground, and the lake surface is at least thirty feet lower down the hillside, giving me a false sense of elevation. I put on a second layer and set my book down periodically to warm my hands around my coffee mug. The sun has just risen, but the phoebe is already up and active. “Fee-bee” he calls, announcing his presence. His voice is raspy as if he still has sleep in his throat. His call is similar in duration and rhythm to the chickadee’s two-note “spring-time,” but without the clear tone. Sitting above the brush layer of the forest but below the canopy, I’m at eye level with the phoebe’s preferred habitat. This level above the ground cover and the mammals inhabiting those niches and below the thick canopy of the trees, belongs to the flying creatures.

He moves from branch to branch around the deck. My presence this morning has roused him from the nest built earlier this spring on a support beam on the underside of the deck. He attracted his mate to the nest site with flying displays in which he spread his tail to show his genetic fitness. She must have been sufficiently impressed to choose him and his nesting site and, incidentally, to build the nest
without any help from him. Their chicks have yet to fledge, so both parents are busy feeding them.

I presume that feeding the family is his purpose this morning. He is “hawking,” sitting perched at the end of a branch, waiting to nab passing insects. When an insect comes within range, he quickly uses his aerobatics to catch his prey. These are the skills that his mate was selecting for when she looked at his tail, the key tool for these aerobatic maneuvers. She was not making a conscious choice. The females have evolved to prefer the male with the best tail for flying simply because the more females who chose good hunting males, the more offspring they produce that survives because of adequate food supply provided by the male. And since the chosen male had a good tail for flying, so did many of his offspring. This is an example of a positive feedback loop that is a basic principle in natural or sexual selection. In this case, sexual selection and natural selection pressured the evolution of the trait in the same direction. Sometimes the pressure works in opposite directions, which is often the case in songbirds, such as the bright red male cardinal, who sacrifices camouflage to attract the female.

Every now and then the phoebe reminds me of his name. “Fee-bee” he calls, flicking his tail to further express his annoyance with my company. Quite frankly, I do not understand his complaints. Our presence here has not deterred him from a nesting site. In fact, the opposite is true. The phoebes, like barn and cliff swallows, have not suffered from human intrusion into their habitats. Phoebes traditionally nested in the recesses of cliffs and rock ledges along streams. Looking around the cabin, I am not sure what natural site would have attracted a phoebe to these woods before cabins and other structures were built. There are hills, but the terrain does not offer cliffs, cuts in hillsides, or other natural nesting sites. Maybe they followed settlers into new habitats.

Phoebes are now equally at ease building a home in man-made recesses and ledges. It is good to be adaptable, especially as we continue to intrude into each other’s
space—though I would never consider him an intrusion into my morning reading time. “Fee-bee” he calls again. I am tempted to answer, “Timmm-eeee.”

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