Archived Mountain Voices

Flycatcher family of birds is fun to watch

mtnvoicesDuring the breeding season a number of birds that belong to the flycatcher family appear in the southern mountains: eastern kingbirds and wood peewees, as well as great crested, olive-sided, least, arcadian, willow, and alder flycatchers. As their name implies, these birds hawk insects from perches and are great fun to watch. They will start arriving here in April from Central and South America.


The only member of the flycatcher family that resides with us year-round is the eastern phoebe. This species has already begun to build its nests, which are characteristically placed on shelves or other flat areas around houses and other buildings. Another favorite nesting site is on iron beams underneath bridges. If you live in the country or an open suburban area that has a creek nearby, it’s quite likely that you have them busily at work on your property right now.

The phoebe is a gray-brown sparrow-sized bird. It resembles a wood pewee, but lacks the two white wingbars found on that species.

Notice that the phoebe constantly pumps it tail up and down. It’s common name comes from its song, which is a husky “fee-bee.” The Carolina chickadee also says “fee-bee,” but it does so in a more musical style.

There are two birds that can be described as “neighborly.” One is the Carolina wren, which also builds its nests around houses and outbuildings. This little wren is so inquisitive about people’s doings that it’ll often enter homes through open door windows.

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But the Carolina wren is assertive in its manner, like a neighbor who can’t quite keep his or her nose out of your business. The eastern phoebe is more reserved in its coming and goings. It is friendly without being intrusive. It respects your personal space.

Once you locate a phoebe’s nest, you can observe it from a little distance without disturbing the birds. She’ll fly off of the nest when she spots you, but will quickly return once you leave. Just don’t get too close, and don’t ever touch the nest or the baby birds.

For years a pair of phoebes (perhaps the same pair or their descendants) built their nest of grass, moss, and other soft materials on a shelf above our kitchen door. After the first brood was raised, they’d often build a second nest right on top of the first one and proceed to raise a second brood. Sometimes they’d move to an adjacent building to raise the second brood.

I observed that horse hairs were often incorporated into these nests. They were used to line the nest or woven into the other nest materials to provide stability. Since Elizabeth’s horse left plenty of hairs on tree limbs and barbed-wire fences, they were not hard to come by.

One day, however, I was sitting on our front porch when I saw something that made me suspect this horse-bird relationship was more complex than I’d suspected. Across the creek, the horse was casually grazing up and down the bank with a phoebe perched on his rear end. From time to time, the bird would sail off of the horse to the ground below, grab an insect that the horse’s hooves had stirred up, and resume its vantage point atop the horse, who paid no attention whatsoever to his tiny rider. They seemed perfectly content with one another’s company.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..      

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