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Phoebe Day

Join the movement to follow nature's calendar.

First published in the March/April 2012 issue of WildBird

I have a new holiday to propose. The notion stems, in part, from the fact that most people are always looking for another day off from work, and I am no exception. The larger issue, though, is that the employer holidays seldom match the days off we truly want.

I’ll be the last guy to fault time off around the traditional holidays (for Christmas Bird Counts, for example) or Labor Day (a great time to search for southbound migrant birds over much of North America.) But for you and I, bird people that we are, nature writes the calendar, and there are plenty of bird holidays missing from even your 2012 Sibley calendar, Audubon calendar or Backyard Birds Calendar.

Bird holidays oscillate, ignoring the Julian calendar in the narrow sense but moving in a rhythmic, greater picture painted by weather and geography. Bird holidays often waver on the axis of a median date — sometimes running early, sometimes a little late, sometimes, depending on the holiday, skipping a year or two or ten. You can’t know the day has come until the day has come.

Return of the Hummingbird Day. First Red-winged Blackbird Song Day. Peak Broad-winged Hawk Flight Day. Ross’s Gull Day (once every 20 years). First Baby American Robin in the Back Yard Day. No doubt you have a few of your own. Loving birds as we do, we can’t afford to miss them, all of them, any of them.

I propose that The Powers That Be name these holidays, recognize them and understand that birders cannot work on such days as these. I also propose we start the movement with a holiday that not only celebrates but defines spring: First Phoebe Day.

Eastern Phoebe

A desire to hear the familiar "phoebe" call of the Eastern Phoebe might inspire some birders to request a day off from work when this species returns to its breeding grounds during spring.

Perhaps you’re already tuned into the annual return of your phoebe, whether you’re a westerner greeting your open-country Say’s Phoebe or an easterner awaiting a streamside or forest-edge Eastern Phoebe. Both species can appear in back yards within their ranges, but why not pick a likely warm spring morning for your holiday and go looking afield?

EBird can provide details about historic arrival dates for phoebes around the country. Roughly speaking, Say’s Phoebe is resident in the southwestern United States, proceeding north to regions from the Texas Panhandle to Washington in March, to the Dakotas and western Canada in April, reaching Alaska in May. Eastern Phoebe is similarly resident or solely a winter bird in the southeastern U.S., arriving like clockwork over much of its breeding range in March as it follows insect emergence, though the species doesn’t make it to the extreme north of its range until April. By the way, Black Phoebe won’t get you the day off for First Phoebe Day, since it is mostly a year-round resident within its range.

First Phoebe Day breaks winter’s back, fully and finally, like no other natural event. For your local phoebe to return, it must know that winter’s hardest frosts are gone for good, because it depends on active insects for food. Yes, the phoebes forage low where chilled bugs might be present and Eastern Phoebe loves to forage over water where insects emerge year-round, but an extended frost spells death by starvation.

For your local phoebe to return, it must know that winter’s hardest frosts are gone for good, because it depends on active insects for food.

Both Eastern and Say’s Phoebe’s show strong nest-site fidelity. Said another way, if they nested in your favorite local patch last year, they will be back this year. Birders have counted on this every year since 1804, when John James Audubon tied silver thread around the legs of nestling Eastern Phoebes and proved their site fidelity on their return.

Thus a day will come in spring, as it does every spring, when your first Eastern Phoebe perches on one of the cattails by the pond or your first Say’s Phoebe appears on the wire fence edging the pasture. It will jauntily wag its tail and cant its head, looking this way and that for food or foe. Maybe (I hope), the phoebe will come holding the hands of a warm day and south wind. Maybe, again, the day will make you glad for steaming mugs of soup and sorry for the poor phoebe.

Have your greeting cards ready this year.  I never get around to sending Christmas cards, but on First Phoebe Day, the palpable joy begs to be shared with friends far away, especially friends to the north who have not found their phoebes yet. Tell them, as the phoebes do, that spring is coming.

Cape May, N.J., naturalist Don Freiday shares more of his experiences and photos at


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