Darwin, Phoebe and me

I saw an Eastern Phoebe yesterday.

Phoebes are small and drab birds, they don’t have a pretty song, they do not do anything particularly endearing, other than bob their tails when perched on branches. I know, I know –  big deal.

Phoebes usually only attract attention from two groups of people: nerdy bird watchers with binoculars swinging from their necks, and rural homeowners who find piles of Phoebe faeces under the rafters of their porches.

But before I saw the Phoebe, I learned that 2010 is the International Year of Biological Diversity -“a celebration of life on earth and of the value of biodiversity for our lives.” This celebration follows neatly on the heels of the 150th anniversary of the publishing of The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin.

Darwin was nothing if not a keen observer of the life he saw around him. Among other things, he studied beetles and barnacles and wrote a book about earth worms and vegetable moulds. Not exactly thrilling subject matter at first glance. That said, barnacles do have the longest penises of any animal in proportion to their body size.

Simply put, Darwin did not discriminate between sexy, toothy megafauna and eensy bugs. Yet his keen observations of small critters helped lead him to his revolutionary insights that fundamentally changed our ideas about one of the grandest of mysteries of the Universe. That is, the origins of the diversity of life on Earth.

Life on Earth! What could be a more compelling mystery in an entire Universe of uninhabitable space?

Now, back to Phoebe.

I found her when she flushed from last year’s nesting site in the rafters above my car port.

There are a couple things to mention here, lest we overlook how flabbergasting they are. Firstly, this is most certainly the very same bird that nested in this exact location last year. Secondly, not long ago, this little bird was in Florida or Mexico and arrived in this precise place after flying 100’s of kilometers without any navigational gadgetry.  No map. No compass. No satellite guided GPS. By comparison, we often get lost while navigating our heavily signed highways and roads.

Yes, migratory birds are common and we all know they migrate huge distances, but I think we seldom consider how remarkable that truly is. For example, some Bar-tailed Godwits have been know to migrate 11 000 km non-stop, relying on large fat reserves – that make up 55% of their pre-migration body weight – to see them through.

Our little Phoebe travelled a fraction of that distance, but how many humans can say they travelled from Florida to Quebec completely on their own steam?  There are a few to be sure,  but these are largely freakish exceptions – and it would have taken them a heck of a lot longer than took Phoebe. Likely weeks longer. By comparison, billions of birds migrate to northern Canada from southern climes – and back – every year.

So while this drab little Phoebe re-builds its nest for the next brood, I will strive to watch the finer details of its existence through the eyes of Darwin –  with an attentive sense of awe and wonder.  What better way to honour the International Year of Biodiversity.

3 thoughts on “Darwin, Phoebe and me

  1. Ollie

    I do believe the Godwits might be the same bird I heard talked about at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology yearly conference in Seattle Washington in January. There is reason to believe that these birds posses the ability to sleep half of their brain at one time while they make the enormous migratory journey.

  2. Hugh

    I think it was Emerson who said that the invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common Phoebe.

  3. Mirna Taglialatela

    Thanks for posting this. What is meant by aggressive encounters’. I love this species and welcomed it’s increase in Jamaica Bay. I’d hate to see it threaten the piping plover.

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