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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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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
6.3 in
16 cm
Weight
0.5–0.8 oz
15–22 g
Relative Size
Smaller than a Western Scrub-Jay; larger than an American Goldfinch.
Other Names
  • Moucherolle noir (French)
  • Mosquero negro (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Although it mostly eats insects, the Black Phoebe sometimes snatches minnows from the surface of ponds. It may even feed fish to nestlings.
  • The male Black Phoebe gives the female a tour of potential nest sites, hovering in front of each likely spot for 5 to 10 seconds. But it’s the female who makes the final decision and does all the nest construction.
  • Black Phoebes don’t usually venture outside their breeding and wintering areas, but on rare occasions they are seen as far east as Florida. One misplaced bird showed up in Minnesota in the fall.
  • One pair of Black Phoebes got some unwanted house guests when a pair of House Finches moved into their nest. The finches added 5 eggs to the 6 phoebe eggs already there, and the two females alternated incubation duties for an entire week before both species abandoned the nest.
  • The oldest Black Phoebe on record was at least 8 years old when it was captured and released by a bird bander in California in 1981.

Habitat


Open Woodland

Black Phoebes are closely associated with water sources, so look for them on cliffs and beaches of the Pacific Ocean, along riverbanks, lake shorelines, ephemeral ponds, parks, backyards, and even cattle tanks. They require a source of mud for nest building. They winter in similar habitats (sometimes at lower elevations).

Food


Insects

Black Phoebes eat insects and other arthropods almost exclusively. Their diet includes bees, wasps, flies, beetles, bugs, grasshoppers, damselflies, dragonflies, termites, and spiders. Black Phoebes perch within about 7 feet of the ground or the water and keep a sharp eye out for prey. Once they spot something, they sally from perches to either take prey from the air, glean it as it crawls, or snatch it from the surface of a pond. They are capable of seizing small minnows from just below the water’s surface. On rare occasions they eat small berries. They feed mainly during the day but occasionally hunt for insects around electric lights in the evening.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
1–6 eggs
Number of Broods
1-3 broods
Egg Length
0.7–0.8 in
1.7–2 cm
Egg Width
0.5–0.6 in
1.3–1.5 cm
Incubation Period
15–18 days
Nestling Period
18–21 days
Egg Description
Pure white and glossy, sometimes with light spots around the large end.
Condition at Hatching
Helpless and lightly covered with gray down, with eyes closed.
Nest Description

The nest is a mud shell lined with plant fibers, plastered to a vertical wall within an inch or two of a protective ceiling. The nest measures 3–8 inches from top to bottom and 3–7 inches across, with an inner cup that’s about an inch deep and 2.5 inches across. Nests are usually 3-10 feet up, over the water or ground. Even those built over the ground are always located near sources of water and mud. The female does all of the nest construction (or refurbishment), finishing in 1–3 weeks.

Nest Placement

Cliff

The male shows possible nest sites to the female by hovering in front of them for 5-10 seconds each. The female makes the final decision about where to nest. Black Phoebes originally nested in places like sheltered rock faces, streamside boulders, and tree hollows but have adjusted well to human-made structures such as building eaves, irrigation culverts, and abandoned wells. They often reuse the same site (or even the same nest) year after year.

Behavior


Flycatching

Black Phoebes are primarily monogamous and pairs stay together for as long as 5 years. Experienced breeders stay on or near their territories from previous years and often raise two broods in a single season. When courting, males approach a perched female with showy, fluttering flight and hover beside her, chasing her if she leaves her perch. He also performs a display flight near a nest site, in which he fans his tail and flutters his wings, zig-zagging or spiraling upwards as high as 100 feet; he then perches in a treetop and starts to sing. Pairs aggressively defend their territories from other Black Phoebes, maintaining a distance of several hundred feet between nests. They also chase away other flycatchers and songbirds, such as Western Wood-Pewees, Rough-winged Swallows, Barn Swallows, House Finches, White-crowned Sparrows, Brewer’s Blackbirds, and Yellow-rumped Warblers. To show aggression, they flick or droop their wings, raise their crests, and pump or fan their tails. When threatened by aerial nest predators—such as Cooper’s Hawks, Northern Harriers, American Kestrels, Loggerhead Shrikes, and Western Scrub-Jays—Black Phoebes usually sound an alarm call and flee. They are more assertive against terrestrial predators like red foxes, coyotes, and ground squirrels, sometimes swooping down and snapping their bills to deter an intruder. Black Phoebes are nonsocial outside of the breeding season.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Black Phoebes are numerous and their numbers have been steadily increasing since 1966, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates there are 5.6 million Black Phoebes in the world, with 18 percent of those in the U.S. and another 50 percent in Mexico. They are not on the 2012 Watch List. Black Phoebes have responded well to the increase in suitable nest sites brought along by human development, including buildings, culverts, and bridges. Their close association with water means it’s important to protect water quality and wetland habitats.

Credits

Range Map Help

Black Phoebe Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident or short-distance migrant. Black Phoebes don’t leave their breeding ranges entirely, but their numbers increase in winter in the southern parts of their range, indicating some individuals migrate southward. Some Black Phoebes move up to higher elevations for the breeding season and then back downslope for the rest of the year.

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.