- 6.3 in
- 0.5–0.8 oz
- Smaller than a Western Scrub-Jay; larger than an American Goldfinch.
- Moucherolle noir (French)
- Mosquero negro (Spanish)
- 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 recaptured and released during banding operations in California.
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).
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.
- Clutch Size
- 1–6 eggs
- Number of Broods
- 1-3 broods
- Egg Length
- 0.7–0.8 in
- Egg Width
- 0.5–0.6 in
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
Black Phoebes are numerous and their numbers steadily increased from 1966 to 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 6 million, with 18% spending some part of the year in the U.S., and 50% in Mexico. They rate a 9 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2014 State of the Birds 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.
- Wolf, B. O. 1997. Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans). In The Birds of North America, No. 268 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America Online, Ithaca, New York
- North American Bird Conservation Initiative, U.S. Committee. 2014. State of the Birds 2014 Report. U.S. Department of Interior, Washington, DC.
- Partners in Flight. 2012. Species assessment database.
- Sauer, J.R., J.E. Hines, J.E. Fallon, K.L. Pardieck, D.J. Ziolkowski Jr., and W.A. Link. 2011. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2010. Version 12.07.2011. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD.
- USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2015. Longevity records of North American Birds.
- USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2014. North American Breeding Bird Survey 1966–2014 Analysis.
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.
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.