The Phoebe's Leap of Faith

Yesterday, on a cloudy and chilly day in Columbia, an eastern phoebe foraged across the restored prairie at Forum Nature Preserve.  Among the earliest of our summer birds to arrive from the south, these flycatchers seem to accept the risk that an early spring freeze may wipe out their prey; fortunately, they are able to survive on berries and soft seeds for limited periods of time.

We humans admire the hardiness and "faith" of this early migrant, perhaps swayed by the promise of spring that he represents.  Of course, the eastern phoebe neither anticipates problems nor pretends to display courage.  Even though some of his cohorts may succumb to late winter storms, he travels northward in response to instinct, set in motion by the lengthening daylight.  He has no capacity for fear and places no faith in the cooperation of Mother Nature; she, in turn, is not sentimental and the phoebe's survival will depend solely on luck and his own skill and adaptability.

It is reasonable to wonder why eastern phoebes (and tree swallows for that matter) evolved a migration pattern that puts their survival at risk.  Perhaps an early arrival favors the acquisition of choice nesting sites and a head start for the maturation of their offspring.  Whatever the reason, their instinctual behavior has nothing to do with faith or courage.