Photo: Rob Curtis/Vireo

Black Phoebe

Sayornis nigricans

The sharp whistled call of the Black Phoebe is a typical sound along creeks and ponds in the southwest. The birder who explores such areas is likely to see the bird perched low over the water, slowly wagging its tail, then darting out in rapid flight to snap up an insect just above the water's surface. Related to the familiar Eastern Phoebe of eastern North America, this species has a much wider range, living along streams from California to Argentina.
Conservation status Numbers apparently stable, possibly increasing in some areas where artificial ponds have added to nesting habitat.
Family Tyrant Flycatchers
Habitat Shady streams, walled canyons, farmyards, towns; near water. Occurs in a variety of semi-open habitats. Rarely found away from vicinity of water, which may be natural streams or ponds, or irrigation ditches or even water troughs; water ensures the availability of mud for nests.
The sharp whistled call of the Black Phoebe is a typical sound along creeks and ponds in the southwest. The birder who explores such areas is likely to see the bird perched low over the water, slowly wagging its tail, then darting out in rapid flight to snap up an insect just above the water's surface. Related to the familiar Eastern Phoebe of eastern North America, this species has a much wider range, living along streams from California to Argentina.
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  • adult and nestlings
Feeding Behavior

Forages by watching from a perch and darting out to catch insects, often just above water. Catches insects in mid-air, or may hover while picking them from foliage or sometimes from water's surface. May also take insects from the ground, especially in cool weather. Indigestible parts of insects are coughed up as pellets. Male and female maintain separate feeding territories in winter.


Eggs

4, sometimes 3-6. White; some (thought to be the last laid) may have reddish-brown dots. Incubation is by female only, 15-17 days. Young: Fed by both parents. May leave nest 2-3 weeks after hatching. Usually 2 broods per year, rarely 3.


Young

Fed by both parents. May leave nest 2-3 weeks after hatching. Usually 2 broods per year, rarely 3.

Diet

Almost entirely insects. Feeds on a wide variety of insects including beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, wild bees, wasps, flies, moths, caterpillars. Occasionally eats small fish.


Nesting

In courtship, male performs song-flight display, fluttering in the air with rapidly repeated calls, then descending slowly. Nest: Mud nests are usually plastered to sheltered spot such as cliff face, bridge support, culvert, or under eaves of building. Occasionally in well a few feet below ground level. Often returns to same nesting site year after year. Nest (probably built by female) is an open cup, semi-circular if attached to vertical wall, circular if placed on flat beam. Nest is made of mud mixed with grass and weeds, lined with soft materials such as plant fibers, rootlets, hair.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
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Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Migration

Mostly a permanent resident, but departs in fall from highest elevations and from northern edge of range in southwest.

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Migration

Mostly a permanent resident, but departs in fall from highest elevations and from northern edge of range in southwest.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
Song is a thin, buzzy pi-tsee, usually repeated. Call is a sharp, down-slurred chip.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
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