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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.

Yard Map Birds Eye View
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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
5.5–6.7 in
14–17 cm
Wingspan
10.2–11 in
26–28 cm
Weight
0.6–0.7 oz
16–21 g
Relative Size
Slightly larger than a Tufted Titmouse.
Other Names
  • Moucherolle phébi (French)
  • Mosquero fibi (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • In 1804, the Eastern Phoebe became the first banded bird in North America. John James Audubon attached silvered thread to an Eastern Phoebe's leg to track its return in successive years.
  • The Eastern Phoebe is a loner, rarely coming in contact with other phoebes. Even members of a mated pair do not spend much time together. They may roost together early in pair formation, but even during egg laying the female frequently chases the male away from her.
  • The use of buildings and bridges for nest sites has allowed the Eastern Phoebe to tolerate the landscape changes made by humans and even expand its range. However, it still uses natural nest sites when they are available.
  • Unlike most birds, Eastern Phoebes often reuse nests in subsequent years—and sometimes Barn Swallows use them in between. In turn, Eastern Phoebes may renovate and use old American Robin or Barn Swallow nests themselves.
  • The oldest known Eastern Phoebe was 10 years, 4 months old.

Habitat


Open Woodland

Eastern Phoebes breed in wooded areas (particularly near water sources) that provide nesting sites—typically human-built structures such as eaves of buildings, overhanging decks, bridges, and culverts. Before these sites were common, phoebes nested on bare rock outcrops and still do occasionally. They seem to choose nest sites with woody understory vegetation nearby, possibly to make the nest site less visible or to provide perches near the nest for the adult. On migration they use wooded habitats and show somewhat less of an association with water. During winter, Eastern Phoebes occur in deciduous woods, more often near woodland edges and openings than in unbroken forests.

Food


Insects

Flying insects make up the majority of the Eastern Phoebe’s diet. Common prey include wasps, beetles, dragonflies, butterflies and moths, flies, midges, and cicadas; they also eat spiders, ticks, and millipedes, as well as occasional small fruits or seeds.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–6 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
0.7–0.8 in
1.8–2.1 cm
Egg Width
0.6–0.7 in
1.4–1.7 cm
Incubation Period
15–16 days
Nestling Period
16–20 days
Egg Description
White, sometimes speckled with reddish brown
Condition at Hatching
Helpless, eyes, closed, with sparse gray down.
Nest Description

Only the female builds the nest, often while the male accompanies her. She constructs the nest from mud, moss, and leaves mixed with grass stems and animal hair. The nest may be placed on a firm foundation or it may adhere to a vertical wall using a surface irregularity as a partial foundation. The female may at first need to hover in place while she adds enough of a mud base to perch on. Nests can take 5–14 days to build and are about 5 inches across when finished. The nest cup is 2.5 inches across and 2 inches deep. Unlike most birds, nests are often reused in subsequent years—and sometimes used by Barn Swallows in some years.

Nest Placement

Building

Eastern Phoebes build nests in niches or under overhangs, where the young will be protected from the elements and fairly safe from predators. They avoid damp crevices and seem to prefer the nests to be close to the roof of whatever alcove they have chosen. Nests are typically less than 15 feet from the ground (in a few cases they have been built below ground level, in a well or cistern).

Eastern Phoebe Nest Image 1
© 2004 Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Eastern Phoebe Nest Image 2
© 2004 Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Behavior


Flycatching

Eastern Phoebes sit alertly on low perches, often twitching their tails as they look out for flying insects. When they spot one, they abruptly leave their perch on quick wingbeats, and chase down their prey in a quick sally—often returning to the same or a nearby perch. Less often, they hover to pick insects or seeds from foliage. Phoebes rarely occur in groups, and even mated pairs spend little time together. Males sing their two-parted, raspy song throughout the spring and aggressively defend their territory from others of their Eastern Phoebes, though they tolerate other species. Both sexes, but particularly the female, attempt to defend the nest against such predators as snakes, jays, crows, chipmunks, mice, and House Wrens.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Eastern Pheobe populations have been stable or slowly increasing in most areas since 1966, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population to be 32 million with 76 percent spending some time in the U.S., 33 percent wintering in Mexico and 33 percent breeding in Canada. They rate an 8 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List. Historically, their numbers and range increased as people spread across the landscape and built structures the birds could use as nest sites. Many people enjoy having phoebes nesting nearby, but sometimes homeowners remove nests out of concerns over sanitation or general appearance, as also happens with birds such as American Robins and Barn Swallows. Even if there are suitable structures for nest sites, phoebes also depend on low woody plants for foraging perches, so clearing of understory plants can reduce habitat quality for them. Nest sites can be created in large circular culverts by adding nest platforms, and these have proven to be readily adopted by phoebes.

Credits

Range Map Help

Eastern Phoebe Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Short to medium distance migrant. Eastern Phoebes are among the first migrants to return to their breeding grounds in spring—sometimes as early as March. They migrate south in September–November, finding wintering habitat in the central latitudes of the United States south to Mexico.

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.