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Say's Phoebe Life History


GrasslandsSay’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. Back to top


InsectsThis 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.Back to top


Nest Placement

BuildingThe 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.

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.

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.
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FlycatchingSay’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. Back to top


Low Concern

The Say’s Phoebe is common throughout arid regions of the West. Populations showed a small increase between 1966 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.

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Dunne, P. (2006). Pete Dunne's essential field guide companion. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, USA.

Mearns, B. C., and R. F. Mearns (1992). Audubon to Xántus: The lives of those commemorated in North American bird names. Academic Press, New York, NY, USA.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2017). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015. Version 2.07.2017. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Schukman, John M. and Blair O. Wolf. (1998). Say's Phoebe (Sayornis saya), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

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

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