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Eastern Phoebe Life History


Open WoodlandsEastern 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. Back to top


InsectsFlying 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. Back to top


Nest Placement

BuildingEastern 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).

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.

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.
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FlycatchingEastern 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.Back to top


Low Concern

Eastern Phoebe populations have increased slightly between 1966 and 2019 according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 35 million and rates them 8 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern. Historically, phoebes 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 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 the clearing of understory plants may reduce habitat quality for them.

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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. (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.

Weeks Jr., Harmon P. (2011). Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe), 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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