- 5.5–6.7 in
- 10.2–11 in
- 0.6–0.7 oz
- Slightly larger than a Tufted Titmouse.
- Moucherolle phébi (French)
- Mosquero fibi (Spanish)
- In 1804, the Eastern Phoebe became the first banded bird in North America. John James Audubon attached silvered thread to an Eastern Phoebe's leg to track its return in successive years.
- The Eastern Phoebe is a loner, rarely coming in contact with other phoebes. Even members of a mated pair do not spend much time together. They may roost together early in pair formation, but even during egg laying the female frequently chases the male away from her.
- The use of buildings and bridges for nest sites has allowed the Eastern Phoebe to tolerate the landscape changes made by humans and even expand its range. However, it still uses natural nest sites when they are available.
- Unlike most birds, Eastern Phoebes often reuse nests in subsequent years—and sometimes Barn Swallows use them in between. In turn, Eastern Phoebes may renovate and use old American Robin or Barn Swallow nests themselves.
- The oldest known Eastern Phoebe was at least 10 years, 4 months old. It had been banded in Iowa in 1979, and was found in 1989 in Alberta.
Eastern 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.
Flying 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.
- Clutch Size
- 2–6 eggs
- Number of Broods
- 1-2 broods
- Egg Length
- 0.7–0.8 in
- Egg Width
- 0.6–0.7 in
- 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.
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.
Eastern 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).
© 2004 Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Eastern 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.
Eastern Phoebe populations were stable overall between 1966 and 2015, with small declines in Canada, and small increases in the U.S., according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 32 million with 76% spending some part of the year in the U.S., 33% wintering in Mexico, and 24% breeding in Canada. The species rates an 8 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. Eastern Phoebe is not on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List. Historically, phoebe numbers and range 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 birds such as 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 clearing of understory plants can reduce habitat quality for them. Nest sites can be created in large circular culverts by adding nest platforms, and these have proven to be readily adopted by phoebes.
Short to medium distance migrant. Eastern Phoebes are among the first migrants to return to their breeding grounds in spring—sometimes as early as March. They migrate south in September–November, finding wintering habitat in the central latitudes of the United States south to Mexico.
Find This Bird
The Eastern Phoebe’s eponymous song is one of the first indications that spring is returning. It’s also a great way to find phoebes as they go about their business in quiet wooded neighborhoods. Just don’t mistake the Black-capped Chickadee’s sweet, whistled “fee-bee” call; the phoebe’s is much quicker and raspier. During early summer, a great way to find phoebes is to quietly explore around old buildings and bridges. Look carefully under eaves and overhangs and you may see a nest.
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If you have a wooded yard, Eastern Phoebes may come to visit, and they may stay to nest if you have quiet outbuildings that could serve as nest sites. Phoebes are flycatchers, so they’re unlikely to come to feeders.