Photo: Alberto Lopez/Audubon Photography Awards

Eastern Phoebe

Sayornis phoebe

Despite its plain appearance, this flycatcher is often a favorite among eastern birdwatchers. It is among the earliest of migrants, bringing hope that spring is at hand. Seemingly quite tame, it often nests around buildings and bridges where it is easily observed. Best of all, its gentle tail-wagging habit and soft fee-bee song make the Phoebe easy to identify, unlike many flycatchers.
Conservation status Population probably increased as buildings and bridges provided many more potential nesting sites. Current numbers are apparently stable.
Family Tyrant Flycatchers
Habitat Streamsides, farms, woodland edges. In breeding season, typically found near water in woodland or semi-open country. May be limited mostly by availability of good nest sites, which are often along streams. In migration and winter, found around edges of woods, brushy areas, often near water.
Despite its plain appearance, this flycatcher is often a favorite among eastern birdwatchers. It is among the earliest of migrants, bringing hope that spring is at hand. Seemingly quite tame, it often nests around buildings and bridges where it is easily observed. Best of all, its gentle tail-wagging habit and soft fee-bee song make the Phoebe easy to identify, unlike many flycatchers.
Photo Gallery
  • adult
  • juvenile
  • adult
Feeding Behavior

Forages by watching from a perch and flying out to catch insects. Most are caught in mid-air, some are taken from foliage while hovering briefly. Also drops to the ground to pick up insects there. Perches in shrubs or trees to eat berries.


Eggs

4-5, sometimes 2-6. White, sometimes with a few dots of reddish brown. Incubation is by female only, about 16 days. Young: Both parents bring food for nestlings. Young usually leave nest about 16 days after hatching. Adults typically raise 2 broods per year.


Young

Both parents bring food for nestlings. Young usually leave nest about 16 days after hatching. Adults typically raise 2 broods per year.

Diet

Mostly insects, some berries. Insects make up great majority of summer diet; included are many small wasps, bees, beetles, flies, true bugs, grasshoppers, and others. Also eats some spiders, ticks, and millipedes. Small fruits and berries are eaten often during the cooler months, and are probably an important part of the winter diet.


Nesting

Male defends nesting territory by singing, especially at dawn. Occasionally one male may have two mates, and may help to feed the young in two nests at once. Nest: Original sites were probably always on vertical streambanks or small rock outcrops in the woods, with a niche providing support below and some shelter above. Now often builds nest under bridges, in barns, in culverts, or in other artificial sites. Same site may be used repeatedly, and may build on top of old nest. Nest (built by female) is an open cup with a solid base of mud, built up with moss, leaves, and grass, lined with fine grass and animal hair.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
Learn more about these drawings.

Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Migration

Migrates quite early in spring and late in fall, especially compared to other flycatchers.

Download Our Bird Guide App

Migration

Migrates quite early in spring and late in fall, especially compared to other flycatchers.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
Clear phoe-be, repeated many times; the second syllable is alternately higher or lower than the first. Call note a distinctive, short chip.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
Learn more about this sound collection.

Explore Similar Birds