The Phoebes

In the Americas we have three species of phoebes, a songbird in the flycatcher family. Recently a Black Phoebe has been regularly visiting my window, reminding me of the sweet beauty of phoebes.

We have two of the three phoebe species in Northern California year-round: Black and Say’s. The third species, the Eastern Phoebe, lives in the central and eastern part of the continent, never comes to California.

There are Old World flycatchers and Tyrant flycatchers, hundreds of species across the globe. Phoebes are Tyrant flycatchers, genus Sayornis.

Every summer we have migrant flycatchers nest and breed on our property, then around August they fly south. Once the migrant flycatchers have left, the Black Phoebe arrives, spends the winter here. Usually it’s just one individual…and that individual is here now.

Black Phoebes are commonly seen in their range. They especially like to be near water, and are often seen pumping their tails.

Being flycatchers, phoebes eat insects. They have an endearing way of hunting. From their perch, they chase after the insect in a seemingly random flight—swoops and half-circles, zigs and zags.

In the bird world we use the verb “sally” to describe flycatcher flight.

I love to watch flycatchers for this. They look a little loony, because invariably you cannot see the insect and it looks like the bird is losing its balance, or sanity, or both. But of course the bird is not mixed up at all, it’s successfully hunting.

The second North American phoebe, Say’s Phoebe, lives in the western half of the continent. They live in grasslands and are accordingly different shades of tan, brown, and gold, sometimes peach depending on the light.

The third North American phoebe is the Eastern Phoebe, found in the continent’s middle and east. Due to the cold winters, Eastern Phoebes have a large migrating range.

Sayornis phoebe -Owen Conservation Park, Madison, Wisconsin, USA-8.jpg
Eastern Phoebe Photo: John Benson. Courtesy Wikipedia

All three phoebe range maps are displayed below.

I don’t get to see Eastern Phoebes too often, so here are two links from bird-loving blogger friends who live east of the Rockies:

Eastern Phoebe at Photos by Donna

Eastern Phoebe at H.J. Ruiz-Avian 101

We see phoebes perched most of the time. Even when they sally out for an insect, they then return to the same perch.

Strip away all the facts, and the real enchantment comes every day when the Black Phoebe comes to visit. I hear the chipping sound and come to the window and wait. Lately Phoebe has been perching on the railing of our deck. If I stay inside, the bird will start catching insects close to the house, so I use the house as a blind and watch from inside.

These have not been the easiest days lately for anyone. So a cheerful Black Phoebe at my window brightens the whole day.

I say, “Hi Phoebe, so nice to see you again.”

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander except Eastern Phoebe.

Phoebe range maps below. Courtesy allaboutbirds.org.

Range Map for Black Phoebe
Black Phoebe Range Map. Courtesy allaboutbirds.org

Range Map for Say's Phoebe
Say’s Phoebe Rang Map. Courtesy allaboutbirds.org

Range Map for Eastern Phoebe
Eastern Phoebe Range Map. Courtesy allaboutbirds.org

86 thoughts on “The Phoebes

  1. These birds completely avoid me. The maps show that none of them come to Vancouver Island. I wish they would though; they are such cuties with their thick necks (at least, fluffed up feathers on their neck). I especially like the look of the Eastern Phoebe. Lovely post, Jet.

    • Ah, you’re right, Anneli, the phoebes don’t visit VI. But if you’re next door in Alberta or eastward one summer, maybe you’ll get some fun moments with the Eastern Phoebe. I’m really glad you enjoyed today’s post. Thanks so much.

  2. Excellent post. We get a good variety of these birds. I generally call them flycatchers. They like to perch on branches over the ditch, fly out, grab an insect and fly back to the perch. One time I was photographing one really active flycatcher who was catching insects from one of the many Russian olive trees that hang over clear ditch. In one flight, the flycatcher made a low pass close to the water. A big bull frog popped up out of the water in an attempt to catch the flycatcher.

    • Oh how I loved hearing about the flycatcher/insect/bull frog encounter, Timothy! Gave me a chuckle. I loved this story because it describes the flycatcher activity, as well as the pure unpredictability of nature. And what a cheeky bull frog! Thanks for your contribution, much enjoyed.

      • Those bullfrogs will eat anything they can fit in the big frog mouth. They are pretty bold. The problem is they totally decimated our leopard frogs.

      • Yes, bullfrogs are invasive. I’m glad they’re not in our neighborhood pond, I just hope it stays that way. But that’s a great bullfrog story, Timothy.

  3. Jet I will admit I have never heard of Phoebes. By the maps you have included it looks as though we should see some in Alberta during breeding. I chuckled at your description of their hunting, ‘looks like the bird is losing its balance, or sanity, or both’. what a delight it must be to watch. I agree that these days such small gifts from nature can truly brighten our days. Hoping you and Athena are well and safe. Best wishes from Dave and I.

    • I am happy I have had the opportunity to introduce you to the phoebes, Sue. This summer you might see some, either the Say’s or the Eastern. They’re a little easier to spot than some plain small brown birds, because of the way they fly while hunting. Glad you enjoyed the description, and I hope you’ll get a chance to see it someday. Many thanks for your warm wishes and visit today.

  4. I would love to see the energy and strange flight of an insect hunting Phoebe – you made it sound very exciting. Happy to hear how your Phoebe there is brightening your days.
    Here’s hoping voters continue to sally forth and change things for the better. Time to break the siege on common decency…
    Thanks, Jet!

    • I have a big smile on my face, pc, with your use of the verb “sally.” Quick study you are. And I hope you have a chance this summer in your Canadian adventures to see a phoebe. They are not particularly noticeable birds, until you see them sallying, and then you’ll know. I have a sister named Sally. Sometime I’ll have to use that verb on her. Warmest thanks, my friend.

  5. Dear Jet, I can just imagine your pleasure at watching a Phoebe from a window in your house. Life’s simple pleasures are often the best. Thank you for a lovely story!

    • Well you might be glad to know, Maria, that you have black phoebes in your garden! You, too, can have that pleasure. My warmest thanks for your visit and comment today, great to “see” you.

  6. Jet: Thanks 🐦 now I know what to look for 😉 after 13 yrs in NE Tennessee I have not logged an ‘Eastern Phoebe’ in the back of my ‘Audubon’ filed guide. I do have 50 other birds ID’ed on this side of the Smoky Mtns. though ~Willy

    • What a pleasure to share the birds of North America with you, Eddie. There are about 900 different bird species on our continent, so I have a ways to go. ha. My warmest thanks and a big smile for you, my friend.

  7. If one of these little black angels perched on my window sill I would also say ‘Hi little bird – lovely to see you’
    I had not heard of the Phoebe before this post and so once again I learn so much.
    Am thinking of you and hoping things are getting a little more comfortable in California. I also hope that you enjoy a restful, creative weekend. Sending lots of hummingbird hugs in your direction. Janet 🙂

    • I like your description, Janet: “little black angels.” It feels just like that. And how fortunate to not only have the Phoebe’s visit, but s/he is out there catching bugs for us. I’m glad I could share their magic with you today. All is well here, for today anyway, and I send you my warmest wishes. I appreciate the hummingbird hugs, and also your hummingbird watercolor that lights up our living room.

  8. oh how lovely to have a Black Phoebe visiting you regularly, Jet! that helps a lot especially in these times of uncertainty. thank you for introducing me to this beautiful bird. wishing you and Athena a wonderful weekend! 🙂 🙂

    • It is a pure joy to introduce the phoebes to you, Wilma; and I’m glad I could share my new little friend with you. Thanks so much, and happy weekend to you. When it’s Friday and you and I have an exchange, I still think of those yummy breakfasts you used to have at work. Of course, everything’s different now. Here’s hoping there are other joys in your life now.

  9. Sweet post about a sweet little bird. Always appreciate your optimistic outlook – esp in these trying times.
    And I know this week you were battling threatened power outages again.
    I also appreciated the link to the Eastern Phoebe, as that’s what we’ve been familiar with in the Midwest and East Coast. Interesting fact on Donna’s post:
    Did you know the Eastern Phoebe was 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.

    • I’m glad you had a chance to visit the link(s), Nan. Isn’t that an interesting fact from Donna’s website about Audubon and the Eastern Phoebe? Silver thread…seems so civilized and sweet. Thanks for your visit and words today, always appreciated, dear Nan.

  10. Eastern phoebes are some of our earliest migrants to return in the spring, so are always a joy to see after a long winter. I often wonder what they eat that early (sometimes there’s even snow on the ground) and few insects to be seen.

    • Oh, how I enjoyed hearing about the Eastern Phoebes in your area, Eliza. I would imagine they perch in your garden on a regular basis. When it’s too cold for warm-weather insects, allaboutbirds.org says they will also eat spiders, ticks, and millipedes and occasional fruits and seeds. Always a joy to “see” you, thanks so much, Eliza.

    • Yes, you probably have seen a phoebe around, M.B., they’re fairly common across the states in one season or another. I’m glad you stopped by today, I’m off to see what you’ve been up to. Many thanks!

  11. These look very lovely little birds Jet, in all their varieties. And I love their name too!
    There is nothing like being able to watch the birds from your window. I enjoy it every day from my studio but we obviously don’t get Phoebes . I looked up their song and call – they have a very sweet voice. Thank you for the introduction 😊

    • Hi Alastair, yes, it is such a joy to watch birds from one’s window. With the phoebe on my deck, the bird doesn’t see me and comes in much closer to the window to snag bugs from the cobwebby corners, so I have two benefits. I’m glad you had an extra minute to look up their voice…your interest in sound extends even to our phoebes in the States. This gives me a smile. My warm thanks, Alastair.

    • Yes, I think birds are precious creatures, Lisa. I’ve seen some pretty big birds, like as tall as me. But no matter how big or small, they are indeed precious. Many thanks.

  12. Thanks for the shout-out to my blog, Jet, you are so kind! What spot-on timing on your post of the three phoebes. I’ve not seen nor captured yet a Black or Say’s Phoebe (hope to some day!). And it was just a few weeks ago near where we’re camping on Cape Hatteras National Seashore NC, a birder asked if I’d seen the rare sighting of the Say’s Phoebe in Salvo/Waves. She told me where it was seen, and I did try a few times to find that beautiful bird with the rusty belly but didn’t luck out. Of course, it’s now long gone probably trying to get back to its migration route south. Very much enjoyed Athena’s captures, they were all so beautiful, the phoebes are very photogenic! 🙂

    • It was a delight to share your Eastern Phoebe info and photos, Donna, thanks for the contribution. I enjoyed hearing about your Say’s Phoebe adventure. Sorry you didn’t see it, but it will be very special when you do see it. I’m happy you’re out and about chasing birds. Thanks so much for stopping by…and have fun.

  13. I enjoy watching the flycatchers, too. I see them in our dog walks mostly in summer. Though not on the range map, we get black phoebes here sometimes. And the Says will occasionally stick around in a mild winter. They’re also the first to arrive in spring.

  14. There is so much skill, joy, & intelligence contained within the little birds. To me, bird brain should be a compliment. Also, this is not the 1st time I noticed the option to ‘follow’ a blog I have already followed in the past. … so, I’m following you again

    • It’s wonderful to “see” you today, Dawn Renee. I’m glad you stopped by. Our outdoor lizards are not coming out too much now that fall is upon us, cooler temperatures. Otherwise I would do a lizard post, it’s been too long. We like our lizards, don’t we my friend.

      • Likewise. I’m glad you came to see us bc that made it easy for me to visit you back & follow you again. I always learn something from you. I know you will educate me in some way regarding lizards too. I know you’ll give me lizards when you can. Yes, ol’ buddy. We need our lizards & they need us, though they don’t know we may be convincing the masses to love them too – one person at a time.

  15. Thank you for your wonderful post, it reminds me of our Eastern Kingbirds (which are similar with Eastern Phoebes) that are eating our black raspberries every year🙂 Aren’t they bringing us joy, and happiness every time? To many more bright and peaceful days Jet, take care,
    Christie

    • I’m with you, Christie, in the joy and happiness that our birds bring us. How fun to watch the eastern kingbirds eat your black raspberries. Lucky birds, lucky you. My warm thanks for your lovely comment and visit, Christie.

    • Wonderful that you had a pair of eastern phoebes hanging out with you, Val. I’m sure they brought some sweet moments, or you wouldn’t have remembered them. Puts a smile on my face. Thanks so much.

    • Hi Jan, so nice to share the beautiful phoebes with you. I would wager a guess you have them in your yard, they probably have even perched on that gigantic plant you have. That first photo was a sweet moment in Bodega Bay, overlooking the ocean. Wonderful to share it with you, many thanks.

  16. Love the way you greet the first Phoebe of the season! We greet our Eastern in much the same way: wait for the typical arrival date, hear the chip, and step outside to greet the friendly bird that, with a mate soon to arrive, will be nesting by the front door with our observations through another springtime of wonderful birding. Thanks Jet & Athena!

    • Yes, you know well the joy of the arriving birds, that’s easy to see, Walt. I always find it remarkable how they arrive on almost the same day every year. Thanks so much for your visit today, and sharing your words. Hoping the weekend is a pleasant one for you.

  17. I just learned that Texas has all three species of phoebes present all year. I’m going to have to pay more attention. Say’s Phoebe is a year-round resident in the Trans-Pecos and western Edwards Plateau regions, with winter visitors scattered across southern Texas, and the Eastern is resident across the state as well.

    I didn’t know they are flycatchers — silly me. When I think of flycatchers, I think of our scissor-tailed flycatcher, with the long, long tail that splits when it flies. When you described the behavior of phoebes, though, I realized that it’s very much like the behavior of scissortails. Makes sense!

    • How fortunate, Linda, that you get all three phoebes in TX year-round. The variety of species in Texas birds is exceptional. And the scissortail flycatcher, oh boy, I truly love that species. I’ve only seen it about 5 or 6 times. Always a pleasure to hear from you, thank you.

    • Glad you enjoyed the phoebes, Frank. Yes, we’re safe and back at home, but evacuations and power outages are frequent. We’re hoping rain falls soon…. Thanks for your concern and visit. Sending warm wishes your way.

  18. Excellent post, Jet. What a sweet bird and your description of their bug catching behavior made me smile. Love Athena’s photos, especially the Phoebe in the rain. Magical. (I love the shape of their heads) Thanks again for opening my eyes to nature’s wonders.

    • Always a joy to “see” you, Jane, thank you. Your comment on the shape of the phoebe head was astute. Flycatchers in general have a unique head shape, sometimes when the light is difficult, their head shape is the only identifiable feature. Sending smiles and thanks your way, my friend.

  19. Our word sally comes from French saillie, which goes back to the Latin verb salīre that meant ‘to leap.’ If you know Spanish, its descendant is salir, ‘to go out.’ Phoebe as the name of a bird is supposed to imitate the sound made by the bird, although the word got influenced by the female name Phoebe, which originally meant ‘shining.’ Somehow I don’t think your birdies know all those things.

  20. Excellent photographs of yet another bird I haven’t crossed paths with, Jet. Your bird reminds me of the flycatcher in our region. Are they related? I learned something new here today …. thank you!! Really enjoyed reading this post!

  21. I thoroughly enjoy learning more about the Phoebes. We have at least one show up here now and then. It likes to perch on the gate post. It’s a delight to have the flycatchers hanging out. We certainly have a lot of great snacks for them here. 😀

    Have courage dear friend. It’s been a rough couple of years, but surely we will soldier on through. Thanking the stars for our lovely feathered friends to cheer us on! Thanks to Athena for the great photos!

    • I so enjoyed your comment and encouragement, Gunta, thank you. Yes, those phoebes are great fun to watch with their predictable perching, and, as you say, eating up the “snacks.” I, too, feel lucky to have our feathered friends cheering us on. My warm thanks, Gunta.

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