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GUEST COLUMN: Phoebe love in the air

Stanley Tate

Rome native Stanley Tate sits on the Berry College Board of Visitors and is a former Chieftains Museum board member. He retired as executive vice president and chief environmental officer of Southwire and now writes a nature column that appears in several Georgia newspapers.

We share a log house in the woods with a pair of Eastern Phoebes. It was theirs before it was ours. The house was little more than a shell when the female built her cup-shaped nest on a beam in the basement. That year they shared the cabin with a Carolina Wren family that occupied a box of nails in the loft. The wrens moved out before we moved in, but the phoebes stayed. The next year the place had doors and windows, so they moved their nest outside and under the back porch eave. Since then it seems like they are always together.

What I mean by that is my wife and I get the feeling they like each other, which is unusual behavior for Eastern Phoebes. The bird books all say that phoebes are loners who mate for life but don’t spend much time together. The female builds a mud nest that she lines with moss, grass, fur and feathers under a cliff edge or some sheltering structure. She lays six or eight eggs which she incubates. The two of them tend the nest together for a couple of weeks but otherwise keep their distance from each other. The books say that the babies fledge like thieves in the night and by late May the adults go their separate ways unless they decide to have a second brood. And if they don’t double brood they are not seen again until the next spring when they return to rebuild the old homestead.

But these phoebes have not kept their distance. They appear and disappear into the oaks and maples together, snatching moths and bees on the fly, perching and flicking their tails down and up in the oak by the back porch.

This has gone on for three years. Whenever we notice them by spotting wings fluttering from under the eaves or from a favorite perch or by hearing the phoebe, phoebe song, they are fly catching along the same route, and they always take brief, apparently playful runs at each other.

We interpret these runs as more than just bird sex, which is usually quick as a wink — because of anatomy the act is more like a kiss than a coupling. People and birds, for the most part, do it after whatever fashion suits their species, but these two phoebes are not kissing by the book. They don’t avoid each other.

We think they are in the very ecstasy of love. But what do we know? Maybe we’re remembering our time some years ago and interpreting between our experience and theirs — which is little more than a speechless drama. The birds don’t actually tell us what is going on or actually rejoice in the nest. They keep house for a few weeks then, like spring, evaporate into summer.

What emotion the birds feel is unknown, but it looks like a lot more than brute instinct. Maybe for them there is nothing like our own experience, but it does look like they are participating in that same ancient springtime madness. To me it is a reasonable assumption to make, even if it refers to lust and nothing more. But I can’t believe that our phoebes’ nest, or their pairing, is any more accidental than ours.

Rome native Stanley Tate sits on the Berry College Board of Visitors. He retired as executive vice president and chief environmental officer of Southwire and now writes a nature column that appears in several Georgia newspapers. Readers may write him athenryt@bellsouth.net.