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Say's Phoebe Bird Behavior

Behavior can change a bird's shape, as shown in the Say's Phoebe bird.

Peter Dunne
Posted: April 19, 2013, 3:30 p.m. PDT

One of my favorite field guides remains "Birds of Europe” by Lars Jonsson (Christopher Helm Publishers Ltd.). First published in 1993, it broke ground with its comprehensive treatment of plumages and its spectacularly beautiful plates, each one a piece of art.

One of the criticisms of the book was that Jonsson sometimes depicted the birds in odd poses or in shapes that deviated from what we’ve come to expect from most field guides. A good example was the two illustrations of Three-toed Woodpeckers: the male in a typical pose hitching up a tree and the female in a very rotund, relaxed position clinging to the tree trunk. The "fat bird,” as it were, depicted exactly how you typically see these birds in the cold climates that they inhabit.

Jonsson masterfully captures birds as you see them in life, and he understands intimately how a bird’s appearance can change with its disposition and the weather conditions. He spends countless hours in the field sketching birds in various situations, studying them to capture their "essence” before putting oil to canvas. His ability to translate the complexities of bird behavior through art sets him apart from most bird artists and shows why he is considered among the best in the world.

As a budding birder, I spent a good deal of time drawing out the plates in this book. While I now capture bird behaviors more often through a camera lens, Jonsson’s lessons of shape as it relates to behavior remain well-engrained.

Says Phoebe
Most field-guide users have grown accustomed to seeing the Say's Phoebe in a relaxed, upright stance. This position will change based on the bird's behavior, however.
One morning, I enjoyed the opportunity to study and photograph a Say’s Phoebe as it foraged for insects in a field near my house. Most field guides depict Say’s Phoebe in a relaxed position, as a mellow open-country flycatcher. In many cases, the species is illustrated with just one image. That’s all there is to a Say’s Phoebe, right? Maybe not.

In one of my images, the bird is perched mostly upright, and the body appears rotund with belly feathers loosely splayed. Say’s Phoebes spend a lot of time perched on short vegetation in open areas, repeatedly dipping and flaring their tails while casually searching for insects. In this pose, the species presents little identification challenge, as all the relevant field marks are visible: dusky grayish head and breast, fine dark bill, orange belly and black tail.

The moment that the bird detects an insect worthy of pursuit, however, its entire posture changes, along with your overall impression of the bird. At once, the bird changes from a mellow, easy-going flycatcher to a spring-loaded jet fighter. In another of my photos, the bird tracks an insect, carefully monitoring its approach, and its more relaxed posture — the typical field guide stance — has changed to an alert, almost kinetic pose. The bird is oriented more horizontally, ready to spring off the perch to chase the insect. Note its keenly focused eyes, extended neck and stiffly horizontal.

In yet another photo of mine, the bird launches from its perch to chase its prey through an acrobatic aerial sally. At this point, more field marks appear. Not only can we see the pale silvery translucent flight feathers, but more importantly, the fly-catching aerial pursuit we’ve witnessed puts this bird in relatively limited company. By watching how a bird behaves, you can learn something about its biology, and this becomes a very valuable field mark.

Foraging isn’t the only activity that changes a bird’s posture. As mentioned in the Three-toed Woodpecker example, extreme cold or heat can affect the way that a bird looks.

When hot, birds tend to appear sleeker overall, pushing their feathers close to the body. When cold, they use their feathers’ insulative properties to maximum effect by slightly erecting their contour feathers to trap more air around their bodies (just like your down sleeping bag!) and create a buffer of warm air between themselves and the cold.

Some of the most visible examples of a bird’s radically changing posture occur during aggressive encounters with predators or competitors. Owls stand out for their ability to become "larger than life” when faced with a predator, puffing up their feathers and even flaring and outwardly rotating their wings.

In my fourth photo, we find the Say’s Phoebe defending its perch from a possible competitor — a Black Phoebe that has wandered into the area. Far from appearing mellow, the Say’s Phoebe has chosen to look big and mean, puffing up its body feathers and completely erecting the feathers of the crown. I’d be scared off if I was a Black Phoebe and saw this brute!

To say the least, this bird looks nothing like the Say’s Phoebes depicted in most field guides. Many birders might feel confused while looking at this single image. In life, though, we have the luxury of watching birds over a period of time, and before long, this terrifying monster reverts to the mellow open-country flycatcher that we know as Say’s Phoebe.

Excerpt from WildBird Magazine, May/June 2011 issue, with permission from its publisher, I-5 Publishing LLC. To purchase digital back issues of WildBird Magazine, click here.


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