- Written by Clyde McMillan-Gamber Clyde McMillan-Gamber
Though from different bird families, eastern bluebirds and eastern phoebes have much in common, besides their first name.
Both are attractive and a bit larger than house sparrows. Males of both kinds sing lovely songs to establish nesting territories and attract mates for raising young. Both nest in eastern North America, including here in southeastern Pennsylvania.
Each is a good neighbor to us by eating pesky insects during the warmer months, the bluebirds in overgrown pastures and fields and the phoebes in bottomland woods near streams and boulders.
Bluebirds and phoebes arrive in our area in March to nest, though some bluebirds are here all winter, eating berries and roosting overnight in little groups to share body heat in tree hollows and nesting boxes.
Being adaptable, both kinds raise young in sheltered places, both natural and human-made, and feed invertebrates to their progeny.
Pairs of bluebirds hatch two or three broods in abandoned woodpecker holes and other tree cavities or in birdhouses erected particularly for them in proper habitats, which are pastures studded with a few trees and shrubs.
Each phoebe pair produces one or two broods per summer, traditionally on rock ledges, under overhanging boulders, and near streams in woods. Today they also hatch babies on support beams under small bridges over little waterways and under porch roofs in woodlands.
However, eastern bluebirds and eastern phoebes are feathered neighbors in certain local meadows shaded by many trees and bushes and divided by a stream with a small bridge over it. There, the nesting needs of each species are met. The bluebirds raise young in tree hollows in the pastures while the phoebes rear offspring under the bridge.
In summer over the years, I’ve seen families of lovely bluebirds and phoebes sharing several human-made meadows in southeastern Pennsylvania. It’s exciting and inspiring to watch both kinds of attractive birds in a tree-dotted pasture catching invertebrates and feeding them to their fledged youngsters.
Eastern bluebirds and eastern phoebes are another local example of two species of adaptable life from two different habitats converging in a habitat that suits both their needs.
Therefore, a meadow bird and a woodland bird perch in the same habitat watching for the same food. They could be competitors for insects, except bluebirds get more of that food off grass tips, while phoebes get more of it from mid-air.
Nature always has a way of working things out.
Clyde McMillan-Gamber is a retired Lancaster County Parks naturalist.