phoebes

i heard a report on the radio recently that populations of flycatchers are down in the northeast US. i was a little alarmed, but i felt good that we’ve had a very successful nesting pair of phoebes for several years here on the mountain.

one year they made a nest on an outcrop on the side of the house up near the eaves. last year, they made a nest of horse hair and moss atop the light fixture in our shed and raised at least two broods of four chicks each. i was content when they moved back in to the same nest this spring and set up shop to raise another couple of broods. i would sit quietly in the lull of chores, between feeding the horses and picking up their empty dishes, while the pair did their housekeeping. the female’s little wedge-shaped tail stuck out of the back of the nest and her mate would fill up with bugs and feed her as she sat determinedly on her eggs. i would put on a hooded sweatshirt before i headed out in the evening, then sit with my hood up, disguised from mistrustful phoebe eyes, and watch them with so much happiness. they were my companions and entertainment and i felt that having them here, so prolific, was helping the declining population of their species.

last week, i noticed that there was no square tail peeping out from the nest. there was still an adult swooping around and catching bugs, but it was wary. i stood out by the garden to wait for the horses instead of sitting in the shed and hoped that both parents were out catching bugs for a nest full of young. before i went inside, i ducked into the shed and saw that familiar gray tail above the light and felt comforted. the next morning, my mother heard some tiny peeping from the nest. when i went out to do chores that evening, the nest was silent. there were no phoebes swooping or chirping around the shed. with a sinking heart, i got out a ladder and climbed up to peer into the nest. i found four baby phoebes, cold and dead. i plucked their tiny bodies from the doomed nest, all translucent mauve skin and pin feathers and downy heads, their eyes closed tight against the cold hungriness of death. i brought them out to the woods and left them there, hoping that their tragedy could keep another wild parent’s chicks or pups or cubs or kits from the same sad fate.

i’ll never know if one of the phoebes was killed and the remaining parent saw the futility of trying to keep four chicks warm and fed and so abandoned the nest or if one was killed and then the other. we do have a small hawk in the neighborhood which glides through daily, looking for a meal. it, too, may have a nest to sustain. but i mourn the loss of my little flycatchers and miss them keenly every evening.