Jim Smith and his son Drayton had no idea what they were getting into when an unassuming songbird landed on a branch a few feet from them as they were doing backyard work in the family’s Haymount home one day in September.
The Smiths quickly realized this was no ordinary bird.
Rather than flying away after a few moments, the bird perched on the branch, watching them as they peered back into its beady black eyes. Jim, 54, decided to try his luck, extending his hand out to coax the bird into landing on him. The bird, small and grayish-brown in color — an Eastern phoebe — hovered over his hand for a few seconds, then returned to its branch. But for the rest of the day, it “hung out” with them, Jim said, never straying far.
“Right from the beginning, there was a connection,” he said. “Instantly, from the first interaction, the bird just wasn't afraid and just came right to us. And it's pretty amazing. It's been a great experience.”
In the several weeks since that first interaction, the bird has come to visit the Smiths nearly every day, and has since become very comfortable landing on both Jim and Drayton, plus neighbors and visitors. It has even flown into the Smiths’ garage, and it regularly lands on the cell phones of neighbors attempting to photograph it.
Drayton, 23, described the bird as a fearless and loyal companion.
“I've never seen a bird like that,” he said. “You get close to any bird, they're usually going to fly away. And this one just sat there and then eventually would just fly up and land on you.”
Defying the expectations of everyone who has interacted with it, the bird happily approaches strangers, and even seems to keep tabs on the Smiths and their neighbors, often flying close by within minutes of them going outside.
Ramiro Gaeta was doing maintenance work at the home of another Haymount resident, retired doctor Wes Jones, around the time when the bird showed up. Gaeta says he also formed a close connection with the bird while he worked at the house, which is next door to the Smiths. The bird has landed on his head, his safety glasses, his shoulders and his phone. It once even helped itself to an apple he was eating while sitting in his truck.
“I bit the apple, and then the bird started to sing on the top of the trees, really tall trees,” Gaeta said. “And then I sang because he was singing, and then I got a little piece of apple, and tried to offer it with my hand. He came over from far away from the top of the tree to my hand and started to eat in my hand after that.”
Wes Jones also became enamored with the bird’s unusual demeanor, and with the assistance of his sister-in-law Babs Jones, a bird aficionado, he helped identify it as an Eastern phoebe. While Eastern phoebes are known to be friendly to humans, often nesting in manmade structures, this bird’s consistent neighborly behavior is a far cry from the norm.
“They've never seen anything like this before,” Wesley said of the outdoorsmen he’s consulted. “Some people feel like it must be that somebody had a bird and just got out of the birdcage. But you don't keep this type of bird.”
Babs said she first thought the bird was a junco (a different type of bird), as did a few “official birdwatchers” she consulted. She then realized that the bird’s dark beak was different from the yellow-beaked junco, and she was able to use a bird identification mobile app to correctly identify it as a phoebe.
“It's just not an outstanding bird in any way, just gray and white and unassuming,” Babs said. “It took a village to identify it.”
Jim Smith doesn’t know what to make of the bird’s affinity for people, or how long he’ll have with it until it finds a new home, but he’s hoping it has decided to camp out here for the winter months.
“Hopefully, it sticks around and this continues,” he said.
Son Drayton said the bird’s consistently bold behavior has been remarkable to witness.
“From day one,” he said, “it wasn't afraid.”
Contact Evey Weisblat at email@example.com or 216-527-3608.