Bird Observer - The New England Birding Journal

Bird Observer

The Birding Journal for New England

August 2018

Vol. 46, No. 4

Field Notes: A Strange Eastern Phoebe Tale

Judy Brown

At the end of April 2018, my husband was getting ready to repair and paint the columns on our back patio. For the last three years, Eastern Phoebes have returned to a nest that sits at the top ledge of one of the columns. This year, my husband removed the nest in preparation and the next day the phoebes showed up.


Above left: Eastern Phoebe tail sticking out of left side of nest; Above right: Eastern Phoebe perched on top of nest. All photographs by the author.

They began to build a new nest on the ledge of an adjacent column and it seemed to us that they were in a big hurry. There was a flurry of activity and the nest seemed to progress rapidly. When the nest was only partially done, we watched as one bird sat on the nest. We thought that was odd since the nest was incomplete but what was stranger still is that the other bird continued to build the nest around the sitting bird! We really could not believe what we were seeing. The bird continued to build the nest around and over the sitting bird, leaving only its tail sticking out of the nest.

Two days later, the nest was complete and the tail of the sitting bird was still sticking out of the side of the nest with the rest of its body was hidden under nesting material. The other bird was perched on top of the nest. We kept waiting for the first bird to make its way out of the middle of the nest, but soon we sadly realized that it was dead.


Above left: View from side of Eastern Phoebe tail sticking out of left side of nest; Above right: Eastern Phoebe chicks on new nest. All photographs by the author.

When I called Marj Rines at Mass Audubon, she suggested that we take the nest down, which we did. I took the nest apart to see if there was a clue to this odd occurrence, but all I found was the poor dead bird with all but its tail buried in the nest.

As soon as we took the nest down, the other phoebe began to build another new nest back on the original ledge. Now, more than a month later, we are thrilled to see five tiny fuzzy heads popping up from the nest. I guess the painting will have to wait!

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