Eastern Phoebe Nest

2022 May 1

I was going through some old pictures, and found these from June 27, 2020. This is a bird nest that was built on the wall of the front porch of the old house.

I waited for the mother to leave before coming in closer for a look. Her chicks were nearly grown, and were dozing off. I am pretty sure there are at least two of them, it’s hard to tell with all their feathers pressed together like that.

The nest was a bit unusual[1], the upper part of it was constructed of live moss, straw, and miscellaneous fibers that she found around. The white bits look like they could be cattail and/or milkweed fluff, and I think I see a piece of red string in there.

The base of the nest is mostly a mixture of mud and dead leaves, and it is this mud that makes it stick to the wall securely.

This nest structure looked unusual enough that it was worth a try identifying the birds based just on that. And, when I searched for “mud nest with live moss” and browsed around through the numerous hits, the best match for the nest looked like the Eastern Phoebe, Sayornis phoebe. These are common in the area, although they are a type of flycatcher and so are unlikely to come to bird feeders. They are well-known for building nests on structures where there is some sort of overhang to protect the nestlings from wind and rain, and making their nest out of a mixture of mud, dead leaves, live moss, and miscellaneous fibers. They also don’t much mind the presence of humans, and so will often nest right next to doors and windows.

The chicks were obviously almost mature, and indeed when I looked in on them a few days later, everybody was gone. Looking at the pictures now, I was a little dubious about the chicks, because the head of the adult Eastern Phoebe looks different from the head of the chick we can see in the nest. I thought that maybe the nest had been parasitized by a Brown-Headed Cowbird, and that was actually a cowbird chick. But, I found some photos of phoebe nestlings. and it looks like they really do change appearance when they become adults. The ones in this nest look just like phoebe nestlings should look.

[1] A more typical type of bird nest around here are basically just loose cups of grass wedged into a tree, like this nest that a robin built in our grapevine that I photographed on the same day. If we hadn’t seen the robin building it, we probably wouldn’t have been able to identify what bird it was from, because it doesn’t have much in the way of distinguishing features.

The robin nest was more exposed than the phoebe nest, and after a fairly strong and windy thunderstorm the mother robin abandoned it.

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