An Eastern Phoebe’s “Chatter Call”

The past few days, each morning has begun with the persistent calls and song of an Eastern Phoebe in the branches of the oaks outside our bedroom windows, and one or two Phoebes have been active around the house all day – even more active than usual.

With its plain gray back and wings, darker gray, slightly crested head and gray-white breast, this small, shadow-like flycatcher isn’t flashy in appearance – but its animated behavior, characteristic habit of wagging its tail up and down when perched, and the way it hunts, nests and makes itself right at home around yards and houses makes it a familiar bird to many people. For me it’s a favorite.

An Eastern Phoebe sings its name with a scratchy whistle, gives a distinctive sharp tsup call, and occasionally erupts in a jumble of tumbling notes that sound agitated or excited. The species account in Birds of North America* describes a “chatter call” as a “rapid, harsh, nasal tree-tree-tree-tree, with occasionally as many as 30 elements” and that sounds like what I’ve often heard. The account goes on to say that this call is given only by males, and is almost always given around a nest or potential nest site. I’ve been hearing this call often the past few days and don’t always see the birds when I hear it. Of course, they’re not nesting right now, but on at least one occasion today, a Phoebe was perched on the site of last year’s nest when it called like this.

I had been watching as it hunted from different perches around the front yard, calling, singing, fluttering around under the eaves to check for spiders and insects, and perching on the rim of the birdbath briefly. From a low branch on a pecan tree, it flew to the crook in the gutter over the garage where a pair of Phoebes nested last spring and raised three healthy babies. It paused there for several seconds and gave this rapid call of tumbling notes. I thought it might be one of the young ones that were born there, but maybe it was the male of the pair.

I’m not 100 percent sure this call – which I usually describe as “fussing” – is the same as the “chatter call,” but the description given sounds like the same one.

*Harmon P. Weeks, Jr. “Eastern Phoebe (Sayomis phoebe), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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