Bobbing Tails & Black Scales

  • How two very different species found homes in our homes
  • This tale of two species has a happy ending
  • We are all part of Aldo Leupold’s “Land Mechanism” at work

By Jim Low

The small cup of a phoebe nest gets crowded by the time five or six chicks near fledging size.

You step out your front door to walk the dog before bedtime, and are startled by a flutter of departing wings.  The next morning, you find white splashes of bird droppings outside the door, and a little gray bird is perched on the shepherd’s hook above your bird feeder.  Instead of dropping down to grab sunflower seeds, it periodically flies out into the air above your lawn, pumping its tail impatiently in between forays. 

Outdoor light fixtures are a favorite nesting spot for Eastern phoebes, but any horizontal surface out of the weather will do.

On your way back indoors, you spy a clump of moss and mud atop your porch light.  Inside, you open the closet in your foyer and find a 4-foot snake skin inside.

What do these two things have in common? They are evidence that your home and its environs are part of a healthy ecosystem.

If you live in Missouri, the pert little gray bird that startled you was an Eastern phoebe, a member of the flycatcher family.  It isn’t particularly showy, but you can always recognize it by its nervous habit of pumping its tail up and down.  Nervous or not, phoebes aren’t sensitive to human disturbance.  Quite the opposite, they seem to seek out human habitations for their nesting sites.  Their favorite nesting spots in our neighborhood are the horizontal surfaces provided by outdoor light fixtures.

Eastern phoebe are often viewed on a neighborhood fence, farm fence or garden fence.

You might wonder where phoebes nested before humans began erecting houses, barns, sheds and other structures with nice dry spaces beneath roof eaves.  They did – and still do – what swallows do, and built their nests on rock ledges beside streams.  That works out nicely for them, since the insects that comprise most of their diet thrive around running water.  Apparently houses with water features, sprinklers and bird baths work for them, too.

Snakes, like this common rat snake, can reach places you might not believe if you didn’t see it with your own eyes.

Getting back to that scaly surprise in the closet, if you make your yard a haven for birds, rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels and other small creatures, you also make it attractive to the rest of the food chain.  This means foxes, coyotes, bobcats, hawks, owls and snakes. 

This 21-inch black rat snake was just inches away from his goal – a nest full of phoebe chicks.

The impressive skin my wife found in our closet a few years ago came from a particularly prosperous black rat snake.  Its contribution to our residential ecosystem was keeping rodent numbers in check. 

Unfortunately for the phoebes and those of us who love them, rat snakes aren’t exclusively rat eaters (ratatarians?).  We initially blamed blue jays, such easy targets for slander, for the disappearance of five phoebe chicks from the nest beside our front door.  But the truth came out the following year, when I found a reptilian ratter neatly wedged in the grooves of our brickwork.  It was at the top of the wall, and within inches of raiding the new phoebe nest.

I spared the snake, pulling him down and escorting him to the far edge of the yard, but he ultimately paid for his crime when he had the bad fortune to inhabit a patch of tall grass when I mowed it (What’s green and black and red and flies through the air with a sickening THRRRRUPPPPP?).

Anyway, assuming that the late Mr./Ms. No Shoulders had a family, I decided that the phoebes needed a more secure spot for their nest.  Toward that end, I assembled a modest wooden box with an overhanging roof and placed it 8 feet up the slick exterior wall of my tool shed.  There, the phoebes have nested unmolested ever since, and the rat snake family has returned to its rodent-control duties.

This modest box 8 feet up a smooth wall, provides safety from snakes.

Photos on trail cameras prove that foxes, coyotes and bobcats patrol the surrounding woods, but they steer clear of our house. 

Sharp-shinned hawks exact their tribute at our bird feeders, and barred owls stake out our lawn, sparing my vegetable garden from all but a few very cautious cotton-tailed marauders.  Shrews do their part to keep the local field mice honest, and moles thin out the grubs and other underground pests, which I consider a good trade for humps of loosened soil.

These are all reminders that mankind doesn’t exist in a vacuum. 

Our species is one cog – admittedly a very influential one – in what Aldo Leopold called “the land mechanism.”  It’s nice to see the other parts working, and a reminder that we should do our part to sustain balance that all of creation needs to survive.