Flycatchers catch flies, and all sorts of insects, which have a habit of disappearing when winter sets in. So you won't find a flycatcher in the Chicago area in winter. But with the first hints of spring, when the flies start flying again, the flycatchers are back catching them, and among the first to arrive is the Eastern Phoebe. The Eastern Phoebe is going to lose weight really fast if there are no flies for it to catch. So its presence in Chicago is a sign that it's warming up enough to bring out the insects to keep at least one Phoebe's belly full. (Actually, when they can't find bugs, Phoebes eat berries and other things like that, but that's like eating at McDonald's--only when you can't find something else.)


The Phoebe is fun to watch. It usually has a favorite perch or two, from which it darts out to catch a passing insect or—like the one I saw today—make a quick pass over the surface of a pond to snatch an aquatic insect larva. Then it returns to its perch and eats its catch. If the prey happens to be big, and resists, the cute little Phoebe whacks it senseless against a tree branch, swallows it, and then sits there looking cute again.

There are almost a dozen different kinds of flycatchers in the Chicago area, and many of them look so much alike that the only way you can tell them apart is by their song. The Eastern Phoebe makes it easy, though. It has a habit of constantly bobbing its tail up and down. I don't have a movie show you, but you can see it in these two photos: Photo 1, tail down. Photo 2, tail up.

Don't ask me why it's called Eastern Phoebe. There is no Western Phoebe, or Northern, or Southern either....

Dan's Feathursday Feature is a weekly contribution to the COS blog featuring the thoughts, insights and pictures of Chicago birder, Dan Lory on birds of the Chicago region.