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Black Phoebe Life History


Open WoodlandsBlack 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). Back to top


InsectsBlack 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.Back to top


Nest Placement

CliffThe 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.

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.

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.
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FlycatchingBlack 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.Back to top


Low Concern

Black Phoebes are numerous, and their numbers steadily increased by over 2% per year from 1966 to 2019, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 5 million and rates them 8 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern. 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.

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Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

Partners in Flight (2019). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2019.

Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2019). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2019. Version 2.07.2019. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

Wolf, Blair O. (1997). Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

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