SHREVEPORT, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – Do you know the birds of the Ark-La-Tex when you see them?
John Dillon does.
Dillon is the President of Louisiana Ornithological Society, a regional reviewer for Cornell University’s www.ebird.org and is on the Louisiana Bird Records Committee. He sits on the Board of Directors of the Briarwood Caroline Dormon Nature Preserve, teaches English Literature at Minden High School and is the founder of the Minden High School Nature Club.
And now Dillon is a guest contributor for KTALNews.com, sharing his extensive knowledge on how to recognize the birds of our region.
In this, his first installment, you’ll get to know one of our winter songbirds: the Eastern Phoebe.
Meet the Eastern Phoebe
Fall migration for many North American bird species actually begins in July, but October is the most active month for most of the ArkLaTex’s overwintering songbirds, or Passerines, southbound movements.
One of the many harbingers of fall here is the Eastern phoebe, Sayornis phoebe.
The three North American phoebe species make up the small Sayornis genus of the very large Tyrant Flycatcher family, and of the three, the Eastern Phoebe is the only species typically found in the Eastern US, as the name suggests.
The Eastern Phoebe’s song is also the origin of the common name “phoebe” because the first half of the two-phrased song sounds like the name “phoebe.”
Eastern Phoebe are drab and plainly colored but very, even undeniably, cute. They’re all gray-brown on the dorsal side, somewhat darker around the face, and then pale on the ventral side, often with a yellow wash to the ventral plumage. They have short, all-black bills, dark eyes, and faint pale edges on their wing feathers. No bright colors or distinguished crests.
But like all phoebe species, they have the adorable custom of constantly wagging their tails up and down, almost like a nervous habit. As a former student of mine once said upon her first observation of one, you might refer to an Eastern Phoebe as, “That little tail-bobber thingy.”
If you take a stroll or drive through the country, you’re likely to see Eastern Phoebes sitting on barbed wire fences, bobbing their tails constantly, and taking off at high speed to sally out and catch an insect before returning to the barbed wire. This makes up the vast majority of an Eastern Phoebe’s day, which is why they seldom post on Facebook or return your texts.
If you live in Northwest Louisiana, you’re lucky enough to see Eastern Phoebes all year, as this is the only part of the state in which they nest.
Their summer range is roughly from the northern parts of the Gulf states and East Texas up through central Canada and even well into the Northwest Territories. Eastern Pheobies have a strong preference for building their nests on manmade structures, and in North Louisiana will frequently nest under bridges small or large, in or on boat houses, or on barns or houses in the country. Wherever they choose to nest, they prefer somewhat or very open areas, access to water, and lots of flying insects. And they’ll sing their raspy little song all day for you.
In winter, especially on sunny days, pheobies continue to sing. Their winter range extends from the Gulf Coast states through Northeast Mexico.
The incredible winter freeze in our area in early 2021 decimated the breeding population in our area, and it may take years for them to re-establish their numbers.
In late September, Eastern Phoebes begin to move throughout the state and by October they increase exponentially.
Looking at www.ebird.org data, there are usually about 20-30 Eastern Phoebes reported by birders statewide in the last week of September and as many as over 800 reported by the last week of October, some of whom are likely on their way to winter in Mexico, where they wear tiny sombreros and sip margaritas on the beach.
When you’re out on a country drive or a walk down a country road in October, look for a small, drab bird perched on a fence line and bobbing its tail over and over and know that that little bird, along with many other species, just flew here from hundreds of miles away.