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Say's Phoebe

Sayornis saya ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: TYRANNIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Like other phoebes, the Say’s Phoebe is seemingly undaunted by people and often nests on buildings. These open-country birds have cinnamon-washed underparts and a rather gentle expression. They sally from low perches to snatch insects in midair or pounce on them on the ground. Say’s Phoebes often pump their tails while perched on a wire, fence post, or low bush. They breed farther north than any other flycatcher and are seemingly limited only by the lack of nest sites.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
6.7 in
17 cm
Weight
0.7–0.8 oz
21–22 g
Relative Size
Larger than a Dark-eyed Junco, smaller than an American Robin.
Other Names
  • Moucherolle à ventre roux (French)
  • Papamoscas ilanero (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Charles Bonaparte, a nephew of Napoleon, named the Say’s Phoebe after American naturalist Thomas Say, the first scientist to encounter the bird, at a site near Cañon City, Colorado, in 1819. During the same expedition, Say also collected 10 additional bird species. Despite finding several new bird species in his career, Say is perhaps better known as the “father of American entomology.”
  • Say’s Phoebes have been in the U.S. for a long time. Paleontologists discovered Say’s Phoebe fossils in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas dating back to about 400,000 years ago (the late Pleistocene).
  • The Say's Phoebe breeds farther north than any other flycatcher and is seemingly limited only by the lack of nest sites. Its breeding range extends from central Mexico all the way to the arctic tundra. It may be following the Alaska pipeline even farther north, nesting on the pipeline itself.
  • When a Say’s Phoebe finds a good nesting site, it often uses the nest year after year. In central Kansas a Say’s Phoebe reused the same nest 5 years in a row.
  • Say’s Phoebes will nest just about anywhere: in mailboxes, on machinery, and even in old nests built by other species. Researchers reported them using nests built by Black and Eastern phoebes, Cliff, Bank, and Barn swallows, and American Robins.

Habitat


Grassland

Say’s Phoebes live in dry, sparsely vegetated areas including, sagebrush flats, badlands, dry barren foothills, canyons, and borders of deserts up to about 9,300 feet. They often gravitate to buildings like other phoebes, but unlike their cousins, Say's Phoebe's avoid heavily forested areas and watercourses. During the winter Say’s Phoebes also use open, grassy fields with scattered shrubs and agricultural areas.

Food


Insects

This phoebe's diet consists almost entirely of insects such as beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, flies, and bees. They sally from low perches to snatch insects in midair or pounce on insects on the ground.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
3–6 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
0.7–0.9 in
1.8–2.2 cm
Egg Width
0.6–0.7 in
1.4–1.7 cm
Incubation Period
12–18 days
Nestling Period
13–21 days
Egg Description
Pure white, unmarked eggs, sometimes with reddish spots.
Condition at Hatching
Mostly naked with eyes closed.
Nest Description

Female Say’s Phoebes build cup-shaped nests on natural or human-made ledges that have shelter over them. Females use rocks, plant stems, sage, wood, grasses, and spiderwebs to form the base of the nest. They line the nest with hair, wool, paper, or feathers. Nests are about 6 inches wide and 7 inches long with an inner cup about 4 inches in diameter. Females sometimes reuse nests from the previous season or use nests built by other species. If they reuse a nest they add a fresh lining of feathers and hair to the old nests.

Nest Placement

Building

The pair investigates potential nest sites together. They look for a protected ledge or pocket in caves, cliff faces, dirt banks, bridges, barns, and other buildings. The most important feature is shelter from above. Nest height is extremely variable and depends on the height of the structure.

Behavior


Flycatching

Say’s Phoebes tend to perch on low shrubs or even grasses from which they sally out to grab flying insects. They often wag or pump their tails when perched, although they do this less often than either Eastern or Black phoebes. Their flight is direct, buoyant, and graceful. They form pair bonds early in the spring, although it is unclear if pairs stay together for multiple years. Males escort females around to potential nest sites. He flutters his wings while chattering to the female until she selects a spot to build a nest. One or both phoebes often return to the same territory year after year, sometimes even reusing nests from the previous year, but it’s not clear if it is with the same mate. During the nonbreeding season, phoebes are mostly solitary.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

The Say’s Phoebe is common throughout arid regions of the West. Populations showed a small increase between 1968 and 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population size at 4 million individuals, with 85% spending at least part of the year in the U.S., 62% in Mexico, and 6% breeding in Canada. The species rates a 9 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and is not on The State of North America’s Birds 2016 Watch List. Say’s Phoebes may benefit from increases in human-made structures in arid regions, as many of these buildings provide places for them to build their nests.

Credits

Range Map Help

Say
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Medium-distance migrant to resident (nonmigratory). Birds breeding in Alaska, Canada, and the northern U.S. migrate south to Mexico or to the southwestern United States. Phoebes breeding in the Southwest do not migrate and are present year-round.

Backyard Tips

Consider putting up a nest box to attract a breeding pair. Make sure you put it up well before breeding season. Attach a guard to keep predators from raiding eggs and young. Find out more about nest boxes on our NestWatch pages. You'll find plans for building a nest box of the appropriate size for a Say's Phoebe on All About Birdhouses.

Say’s Phoebes don’t come to feeders, but they may use your backyard as a place to catch insects or even build a nest under the eaves of your house or other structure in your yard. A well-placed shelf attached to a building may attract a pair. Learn more about where to place a nesting shelf and how to build one at NestWatch

Create bird friendly habitat in your yard by planting native shrubs. Creating habitat in your yard can provide foraging opportunities for the Say’s Phoebe. Learn more about creating habitat at Habitat Network.

Find This Bird

Say’s Phoebes really blend into their desert surroundings despite their cinnamon-washed bellies. They can be quite vocal at times which helps locate them, but at other times they are quiet and can easily go undetected. Listen for a clear, slurred whistle and a burry, hiccupping note. Keep your eyes low to the ground and watch for quick movements from low shrubs as they sally out to grab an insect or two. Look for them perched on top of low shrubs or fence posts. During the breeding season, they may be found around buildings; you may even be able to spot a nest under an eave.

Get Involved

Join the Great Backyard Bird Count and tell us how many species you see in your yard. Find out more at Great Backyard Bird Count.

Learn more about nesting habitats of Say’s Phoebes and participate in Project NestWatch.

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