The Black Phoebe

Ranging from the South part of Oregon, down all of California, east through Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico, down to Western Texas, and into Mexico, can be found, the Black Phoebe.

When the Lord called the prophet Jeremiah he showed him an almond branch. The earliest nut to blossom, the almond was a reminder of God’s promise to Jeremiah every he saw the branch: “You have seen well,” God told him, “for I am watching over my word to perform it.” Every year, Jeremiah looked at the almond and was encouraged that God’s word still held true. I have my own sign that holds the same purpose…

“There’s a bird!” I said.

“Where?” The guide said.

“Over there, on that little tree. It’s small, and black.”

“A yup, that’s a Black Phoebe.”

The first time I went birding the only bird I was able to spot before someone else was the Black Phoebe. I guess the pride of the moment led to it being my favorite. I knew after that day that I would always be a birder. There is a term for this in the birding community. They call it a Spark Bird. Defined here as “a species that triggers a lifelong passion for birding.”

My spark bird is not very remarkable. Small, black, with a white belly.

There’s a bird that flies around north campus that I love. It sits on the man placed rocks and scans the sky, straining at invisible air in hopes to catch glimpse of a fly. When he spots one, he takes to the air and chases it circling until with a Clack of his tiny beak he catches it. This will happen many times in a few minutes, unless he gets lazy and picks rolly-pollys off the ground. I sit under a tree and watch this bird. He perches on rocks, branches, and the wall that runs along north campus. I love this bird.

There are times where I am down. My mood swings low from the high of the previous day. My eyes are low, scanning the ground. I walk from north campus to the library, barely aware of how I got there. On the man-placed rocks is a gift, a tiny chubby gift. Tsip! He demands my attention. I turn and smile. I almost skip. I run up the Hotchkiss stairs, pass Slight, and I lift my eyes up to the hills, brown and dry. My soul is revived, no longer are these bones dry. The beauty of the shrub-lands fills my eyes. I see the library, Honu Coffee, Magic Mountain, Pico; Canyon Country, In-n-out, the San Gabriels, the 5. How did I forget this was all here? I needed a reminder; I can still hear him Tsiping below me.

This summer as we moved into our new house in San Diego, I walked around our backyard looking for birds. I saw finches, hummingbirds, and orioles, mourning doves and crows. My dad told me that night that there is a nest on the side of our house. I looked at it, thirty feet up, underneath where the two roofs meet. “I don’t know what kind of nest that is. Maybe it’s the finches’.” I said to my dad.

“I thought I saw a black bird fly into it.” He said.

“Really? Did it have a white belly?” I asked

“I don’t know. I didn’t see if it did or not.”

I hoped that it was a Phoebe nest but it was too dark by this time and it would have to wait till tomorrow. That night I read that finches don’t nest against walls but in trees. Black Phoebes do! The next day I was sitting in my hot tub reading Walden and I saw a Phoebe on our awning. It flew from corner to corner looking for flies. I put down my book and watched him. Suddenly he flew to the side of the house. I jumped out of the tub and followed him. Looking up at the nest I saw him. His black head and little thin beak scanning still for food. So it was a Phoebe nest.

How happy the next few days were. I told my family, I told my friends. “There’s a Black Phoebe nest on our house. It’s my favorite.” I began to do experiments. I counted three. A father, a mother, and a fledgling. I climbed up on the roof to try to get a closer view. One time the female was on the satellite dish on the first level roof; I climbed up the garbage cans and stood up, my face right next to her. She didn’t see me at first. When she did she flew away immediately with a Tsip to higher ground. “Regurgitates pellets.” My book said. So naturally I went looking for these though I never found any. Perhaps I just didn’t know what they looked like. I could have passed hundreds but, for fear of touching the poop also thrown about, I didn’t keep the search up for long.

I enjoyed them greatly. Whenever we pulled into our driveway I would see them. The female on the satellite disk, the male on top of the house their baby waiting in the nest for his meal. It was short lived. The pride of having Phoebes in my backyard was crushed when two hawks (Cooper’s? Sharp-shinned? I don’t know) terrorized the neighborhood. Everyday for about two weeks they pearched on the pine trees behind my house until they spotted a bird and took after it. When they moved on to the next neighborhood, the only birds that were left were the hummingbirds and the mourning doves. My phoebes met their end, though my mom preferred to think that they moved. I would have liked to believe it.

And here I confess my Black Phoebe. I abandoned you for a short time. I was won over by the powerful diving of the pelican. I was enticed by the face, dripping with water, of the pelican as he rose from the depths, a fish still wiggling in his pouch. I was amazed at the wing span of the one and the sheer number of the many flying north above me everyday at the Oceanside beach. I forgot that God is not in the wind, nor the earthquake, nor the fire, but in the silent wing-beats of the phoebe, in the high Tsiping of the tyrant flycatcher. Though the phoebe and the pelican have caused me to worship the creator of both, only the phoebe has been there to remind me of the Lord’s promises, cause me to put my trust where it belongs, and to lift my spirits high as the pelican flies.

It was Thanksgiving break when I saw another Phoebe in my backyard. I was sitting in my hot tub reading Annie Dillard. Across the yard I saw the Phoebe sitting on the edge of my pool. He was looking in at the many dead flies on the surface. This lazy Phoebe, he would fly into the pool, scoop out a fly, and fly back. He did this until he was full and then he flew home to digest his un-worked for feast.

After I saw this I went inside.“There’s a Phoebe by the pool.” I told my mom who was in the kitchen. “He just sits by the edge and scoops out the dead flies.” I looked at Adrianna sitting on the couch. “He doesn’t want to catch them like a normal Phoebe.” I walked up the stairs to my room, mumbling at this point. “They can’t taste very good… with all the chlorine.”

“What?!” my dad upstairs said.

“Oh nothing… Just a bird.” I said, mostly to myself.



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Keith Brooks

The grapes are sometimes merciful. California Travel, Essays, Short Fiction, and Reviews.