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Help develop a Bird ID tool!

Black Phoebe

Sayornis nigricans ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: TYRANNIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The Black Phoebe is a dapper flycatcher of the western U.S. with a sooty black body and crisp white belly. They sit in the open on low perches to scan for insects, often keeping up a running series of shrill chirps. Black Phoebes use mud to build cup-shaped nests against walls, overhangs, culverts, and bridges. Look for them near any water source from small streams, to suburbs, all the way to the salt-sprayed rocks and cliffs of the Pacific Ocean.

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Keys to identification Help

Flycatchers
Flycatchers
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Black Phoebes are small, plump songbirds with large heads and medium-long, squared tails. They often show a slight peak at the rear of the crown. The bill is straight and thin.

  • Color Pattern

    Black Phoebes are mostly sooty gray on the upperparts and chest, with a slightly darker black head. The belly is clean white, and the wing feathers are edged with pale gray.

  • Behavior

    Black Phoebes sit upright on low perches near water and make short flights to catch insects. They pump their tails up and down incessantly when perched. They nest in mud cups anchored in protected nooks, often under a bridge or the eaves of a building. They often keep up a string of sharp chip calls.

  • Habitat

    In the U.S., you’ll almost always find these flycatchers near water. They live along streams, rivers, lakes, and the Pacific Ocean—even around cattle tanks. As long as there is water present and some kind of ledge or overhang on which to anchor a mud nest, Black Phoebes could be around.

Range Map Help

Black Phoebe Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult

    Black Phoebe

    Adult
    • Small flycatcher
    • Mostly dark gray/black with snowy white belly
    • Thin black bill
    • Usually seen near water
    • © Desert Vu, Mojave Desert, Nevada, March 2009
  • Adult

    Black Phoebe

    Adult
    • Small flycatcher
    • Black overall with bright white belly and undertail
    • Often wags long tail
    • © Jon Rowley, Central Valley, California, February 2008
  • Adult

    Black Phoebe

    Adult
    • Small flycatcher
    • Often shows crest
    • Distinctive, contrasting black and white plumage
    • Usually found near water
    • © Lois Manowitz, Sweetwater Wetlands, Tucson, Arizona, January 2011
  • Adult

    Black Phoebe

    Adult
    • Small, dainty flycatcher
    • Mostly black with snowy white belly
    • Long tail
    • Thin black bill
    • © Stephen Ramirez, Clear Creek, Menard County, Texas, December 2009

Similar Species

  • Adult

    Eastern Phoebe

    Adult
    • Stockier than Black Phoebe with rounded head
    • Pale throat and breast
    • Dark cap contrasts with paler gray or olive back and wings
    • © Kelly Azar, Chester County, Pennsylvania, March 2011
  • Adult

    Say's Phoebe

    Adult
    • More slender and elongated than Black Phoebe
    • Long wings
    • Pale gray overall
    • Pink/orange wash on belly and undertail coverts
    • © Mike Wisnicki, Grand Forks, British Columbia, Canada, September 2011

Similar Species

Say’s Phoebes are dark, mousy gray overall with a salmon belly; they overlap in range with Black Phoebes, but are frequently seen in open areas away from water. Eastern Phoebes don’t normally overlap in range with Black Phoebes (except in parts of south-central Texas). Eastern Phoebes are medium brown-gray above and grayish-white on the flanks instead of crisp black and white. Eastern Kingbirds are larger than Black Phoebes and have almost entirely white underparts without a black throat or chest. Dark-eyed Juncos are often confused with Black Phoebes by beginning bird watchers. The color pattern is very similar, but the shape and behavior are very different: juncos have thick, seed-cracking bills and spend most of their time on the ground or in foliage, whereas Black Phoebes have large heads and slender bills, and they sit out in the open and catch insects.

Backyard Tips

Black Phoebes do well around humans. They don’t come to feeders, but they may use your backyard as a place to catch insects, or even build nests under eaves of a building, especially if there is water or mud nearby.

Find This Bird

Within their range, Black Phoebes are common and conspicuous near sources of water and around human development. They usually stay low to the ground and perch in the open, so scan low branches, rocks and shrubs along the edges of streams, lakes, estuaries, and the seashore. The bird’s distinctive tail-pumping can help you recognize it from afar. Black Phoebes very often call out with a shrill, scratchy chip.