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Eastern Phoebe

Sayornis phoebe ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: TYRANNIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

One of our most familiar eastern flycatchers, the Eastern Phoebe’s raspy “phoebe” call is a frequent sound around yards and farms in spring and summer. These brown-and-white songbirds sit upright and wag their tails from prominent, low perches. They typically place their mud-and-grass nests in protected nooks on bridges, barns, and houses, which adds to the species’ familiarity to humans. Hardy birds, Eastern Phoebes winter farther north than most other flycatchers and are one of the earliest returning migrants in spring.

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Keys to identification Help

Flycatchers
Flycatchers
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    The Eastern Phoebe is a plump songbird with a medium-length tail. It appears large-headed for a bird of its size. The head often appears flat on top, but phoebes sometimes raise the feathers up into a peak. Like most small flycatchers, they have short, thin bills used for catching insects.

  • Color Pattern

    The Eastern Phoebe is brownish-gray above and off-white below, with a dusky wash to the sides of the breast. The head is typically the darkest part of the upperparts. Birds in fresh fall plumage show faint yellow on the belly and whitish edging on the folded wing feathers.

  • Behavior

    The Eastern Phoebe generally perches low in trees or on fencelines. Phoebes are very active, making short flights to capture insects and very often returning to the same perch. They make sharp “peep” calls in addition to their familiar “phoebe” vocalizations. When perched, Eastern Phoebes wag their tails down and up frequently.

  • Habitat

    These birds favor open woods such as yards, parks, woodlands, and woodland edges. Phoebes usually breed around buildings or bridges on which they construct their nests under the protection of an eave or ledge.

Range Map Help

Eastern Phoebe Range Map
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Field MarksHelp

  • Adult

    Eastern Phoebe

    Adult
    • Stocky and long-tailed with thin, flattened bill
    • Cream-colored breast and belly
    • Dark head and paler gray back and wings
    • © Stephen Ramirez, Clear Creek, Texas, January 2010
  • Juvenile

    Eastern Phoebe

    Juvenile
    • Stocky and long-tailed flycatcher
    • Dark gray above, pale yellow belly
    • Smudgy gray chest
    • © Kelly Colgan Azar, Chester County, Pennsylvania, July 2011
  • Adult

    Eastern Phoebe

    Adult
    • Stocky and long-tailed flycatcher
    • Dark head
    • Pale gray back and wings
    • Faint wing-bars sometimes visible
    • © Roy Brown Photography, Ellijay, Georgia, December 2009
  • Juvenile

    Eastern Phoebe

    Juvenile
    • Larger flycatcher with relatively long tail
    • Juvenile shows more yellow on belly than adult, paler head
    • Smudgy gray breast
    • Gray back and wings
    • © Stephen Pollard, Texas, November 2008
  • Adult

    Eastern Phoebe

    Adult
    • Larger, long-tailed flycatcher
    • Dark head, paler olive-gray on back and wings
    • White to off-white underparts with gray on sides of chest
    • Thin, flattened bill
    • © Kelly Colgan Azar, Chester County, Pennsylvania, March 2011
  • Juvenile

    Eastern Phoebe

    Juvenile
    • Stockier and longer-tailed than other small flycatchers
    • Pale olive-gray back and wings
    • Juvenile shows yellow belly and smudgy gray breast
    • Faint buffy wing bars
    • © Victor Fazio, Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma, May 2008

Similar Species

  • Adult

    Say's Phoebe

    Adult
    • Similar in size/shape to Eastern Phoebe, but with longer tail
    • Distinctive buffy-orange belly and under-tail
    • Dull orange visible under wings when in flight
    • Ashier gray on head and breast
    • © Ganesh Jayaraman, Coyote Valley, California, January 2010
  • Adult

    Black Phoebe

    Adult
    • Similar in size to Eastern Phoebe, but with distinct peaked crown
    • Entirely black head and breast
    • Dark gray back and wings
    • Contrasting snowy-white belly
    • © Lois Manowitz, Tucson, Arizona, December 2009
  • Adult male Slate-colored

    Dark-eyed Junco

    Adult male Slate-colored
    • Stockier than Easter Phoebe
    • Pinkish conical bill
    • Shorter, more rounded wings
    • © Gary Mueller, Rolla, Missouri, February 2007
  • Adult

    Eastern Wood-Pewee

    Adult
    • Smaller and more slender than Eastern Phoebe
    • Peaked crown
    • Broad white wing-bars
    • Dusky olive back and head
    • © Kelly Colgan Azar, Pennsylvania, June 2011
  • Adult

    Willow Flycatcher

    Adult
    • Smaller and more compact than Eastern Phoebe
    • Peak at rear of crown
    • White throat contrasts with brownish olive face and back
    • White wing-bars
    • © Kelly Colgan Azar, Pennsylvania, June 2011
  • Adult

    Least Flycatcher

    Adult
    • Very small and compact
    • White eye-ring and wing-bars
    • Short wings and short, narrow tail
    • Mostly grayish with dull olive on back
    • © Cameron Rognan, Sapsucker Woods, Ithaca, New York, August 2008

Similar Species

North America’s other two phoebe species, Say’s Phoebe and Black Phoebe, have very little range overlap with Eastern Phoebe; Eastern Phoebe is the only one that is dark above and whitish throughout the underparts. Eastern Wood-Pewees tend to perch much higher in trees and rarely wag their tails as Eastern Phoebes do. Willow Flycatcher and Least Flycatcher are somewhat smaller and more frenetic foragers than the phoebe. They tend to have more prominent wing bars and wag their tails much less often. Dark-eyed Juncos are gray-and-white sparrows with stubby, seed-eating bills; they are typically found on or near the ground in a horizontal posture.

Find This Bird

The Eastern Phoebe’s eponymous song is one of the first indications that spring is returning. It’s also a great way to find phoebes as they go about their business in quiet wooded neighborhoods. Just don’t mistake the Black-capped Chickadee’s sweet, whistled “fee-bee” call; the phoebe’s is much quicker and raspier. During early summer, a great way to find phoebes is to quietly explore around old buildings and bridges. Look carefully under eaves and overhangs and you may see a nest.

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If you have a wooded yard, Eastern Phoebes may come to visit, and they may stay to nest if you have quiet outbuildings that could serve as nest sites. Phoebes are flycatchers, so they’re unlikely to come to feeders.