Black Phoebe

Sayornis nigricans

Linda Tanner, Creative Commons license CC-BY
  • TYRANNIDAE
  • Tyrant-flycatchers
  • Passeriformes
  • Febe Guardarios, Mosquero negro, Mosquero de agua
  • Moucherolle noir
Introduction
A dark sentinel on an exposed perch, the Black Phoebe bobs its tail, patiently waits for its prey, and plucks flying creatures from the air or the water. "Phoebe" describes the common song of the Eastern Phoebe, a close relative of this small songbird. Human habitation and irrigation have probably benefited the Black Phoebe, whose populations have been increasing. Black Phoebes breed from California to Argentina, where water runs or gathers long enough to make mud for nests and produce insects for young. 
Appearance Description
With a black head and chest, dark grey upper parts, and a clean white belly, the Black Phoebe looks like a Dark-eyed "Slate-colored" Junco. This small songbird has a slight crest, medium long tail, and chunky build. The sexes are alike. Like other phoebes, Black Phoebes habitually raise and lower their tails as they perch in a characteristically erect posture. This phoebe's size and color make it unique among the flycatchers of North America. On average, Black Phoebes weigh .67 ounces and grow to 7 inches in length. Their wingspan is about 11 inches.
Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution
Black Phoebes range from the California coast to west Texas, then south through Central America to northwest Argentina. Distribution is often limited by suitable structures upon which the phoebe can build its mud nest.

A legend for the range map to the right can be found here.
 
Habitat
Black Phoebes need water and mud for nesting; they reside along stream banks and ponds in open country, farmlands, parks, and residential yards.  These birds prefer areas with a mix of openings and shrubs or thickets. The Black Phoebe is at home from sea level to 2,500 meters above.
Feeding
From a medium to low perch, the Black Phoebe drops to snatch its prey from above, often just at ground or water surface level. This flycatcher rarely feeds on the ground, but will pick food from nearby leaves or branches. Food items include flies, bees, ants, spiders, beetles, moths, and caterpillars. Some Black Phoebes learn to pluck small fish from the water.
Reproduction
For North American Black Phoebes, monogamous pairs begin courtship activities in late January, and often return to the same site every year. Females prefer rock or cement walls with cover for the nest, mud for its construction, and water with shrubby vegetation for foraging.
 
Using mud and stringy plant material, the female builds half a bowl onto a ledge or wall, lays 3 to 6 white eggs, and incubates them for 16 to 17 days, while males defend the nest area and occasionally incubate as well. The young fledge in 18 to 21 days and attain independence in another week to ten days. Juvenile Black Phoebes inhabit dense cover, and their habits are poorly known. Pairs usually produce two broods per season.
Migration
For the most part, Black Phoebes are permanent residents throughout their wide range, but northern birds withdraw from parts of the American Southwest in winter. Other local movements may also occur.
  • 970,000
  • 320,000
  • no current conservation concerns
Population Status Trends
Overall, Black Phoebe populations are increasing. Breeding Bird Surveys indicate a 1.8% average annual growth in population between 1966 and 1994. Christmas Bird Counts since 1991 have recorded similar increases, especially in Andean South America. Weather patterns cause Black Phoebe numbers to fluctuate significantly within the United States.
Conservation Issues

Currently, Black Phoebe populations seem healthy enough to cause little concern among conservation groups and government agencies. This flycatcher appears to benefit from human activities and structures by foraging along irrigation ditches, and nesting on buildings and bridges. Black Phoebes also have a greater tolerance for people than many other bird species. As water becomes increasingly scarce in the Southwest and as natural sources dry up, the Black Phoebe will become more confined to artificial habitats in North America. The continued health of Black Phoebe populations may be tied to management practices designed to conserve water and preserve other species.

What You Can Do
In the American Southwest, look for the conspicuous and handsome Black Phoebe along waterways and the edges of wetlands.
 
Black Phoebes prefer open areas near water.  If you have a fairly large yard, a small backyard pond and fountain, with a few scattered native shrubs for hunting perches, may attract these birds.  Make sure to otherwise keep your yard safe for birds by following the guidelines for a healthy yard at Audubon at Home.
 
If you own land with natural surface water, consider managing this precious resource to benefit Black Phoebes and other wildlife by allowing water to flow through natural courses and preserving vegetation around wetlands and streams. For general streamside management practices, visit the Colorado Riparian Association website.
 
For actions you can take, including Audubon activities, please visit our resources page.
More Information
Cattle can severely impact the riparian habitat used by Black Phoebes. For an overview of the relationship between cattle and streams, and for a list of best practices, visit the website of the College of Natural Resources at the University of Idaho.
 
Visit our resources page for more information about this species.
Natural History References
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996.
 
Sibley, David Allen. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
 
Wolf, B. O. 1997. Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans). In The Birds of North America, No. 268 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.
Conservation Status References
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996.
 
Sibley, David Allen. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
 
Wolf, B. O. 1997. Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans). In The Birds of North America, No. 268 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.