Eastern Phoebe

Sayornis phoebe

(c) Glen Tepke
  • TYRANNIDAE
  • Tyrant-flycatchers
  • Passeriformes
  • Mosquero fibi
  • Moucherolle phébi
Introduction
Although plainly colored, the Eastern Phoebe is a common and conspicuous flycatcher found in semi-open habitats near water and woods. Its emphatic "Fee-bee!" inspired this songbird's name, and announces spring for many North Americans. Capable of nesting on a variety of artificial structures, and tolerant of human presence, Eastern Phoebe populations are on the rise. John James Audubon tied wire to the legs of Eastern Phoebe nestlings for the first banding study in North America.
Appearance Description
The Eastern Phoebe is a discreetly colored songbird. The lower parts are mostly whitish with a grey wash over the breast. The upper parts are medium grey, but dark grey to black in the tail, wings, and head. The eyes, small bill, and legs are black. A stout flycatcher with a short neck, this phoebe perches upright and wags its tail habitually. The sexes are similar. On average, Eastern Phoebes weigh .7 ounces, and grow to 7 inches in length. Their broad, rounded wings span 10.5 inches.
Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution
The Eastern Phoebe’s range is wide. Where it can find nesting sites, this phoebe breeds from Texas to the northern Canadian provinces and then east to the Atlantic Ocean. It winters south of the line from the Carolinas through Texas, and then into much of Mexico.
 
A legend for the range map to the right can be found here.
Habitat
In order to breed, the Eastern Phoebe needs woods, water, and rocky outcrops, or artificial structures such as barns, houses, bridges, or utility buildings. This phoebe is often found along creeks, at the edge of woodlands, and in yards. Outside the breeding cycle, it moves into a wide variety of brushy habitats, thick weeds, and woods near water.
Feeding
During the summer months, Eastern Phoebes mostly eat flying insects like bees, wasps, ants, beetles, and flies, but they also capture spiders, ticks, and water bugs. From an exposed perch, this phoebe scans for prey, then swoops out to either snatch it from the air, chase it to the ground, or pick it from a leaf. Berries and other fruits supplement the phoebe’s diet in cool weather.
Reproduction
Eastern Phoebes appear to be monogamous, often returning to the same nest site each year to re-establish pair bonds. However, these solitary birds are highly territorial and appear to barely tolerate each other, even during breeding. Courtship displays are simple and brief. The female builds a nest foundation either by sticking mud to a vertical surface or piling mud in a ring on a flat surface. She then uses moss, grasses, and leaves to construct the nest cup, which is lined with fine plant materials and hair.
 
The female incubates 2 to 6 white eggs for about 16 days. Both adults care for the young for another 2 to 3 weeks, until they fledge.  Because they depart abruptly and move far from the nest, fledglings are difficult to observe, but appear to receive care on the ground for another two weeks. Eastern Phoebes usually have two broods; they often re-use a site by renovating an old nest or building over its ruins.
Migration
Solitary Eastern Phoebes migrate early in the spring and linger late into the fall, especially if the weather is mild. Following the frost line, some individuals arrive almost a month before the main wave. Cold weather seems to determine a population’s movements, so that both migrations occur over three months.     
CBC Graph
Graph Legend
Annual Population Indices
  • 16,000,000
  • 16,000,000
  • no current conservation concerns
Population Status Trends
Since 1979, Breeding Bird Surveys and Christmas Bird Counts have predominantly recorded increases in Eastern Phoebe populations. Significant but temporary regional declines have been attributed to harsh winters.
 
An explanation of the Annual Indices graph displayed to the right can be found here.
Conservation Issues
Because Eastern Phoebe populations have been increasing throughout an extensive range, management efforts have been focused on wetland habitat and potential threats. Because this phoebe’s success depends largely on human habitation and infrastructure, changes in construction practices could lead to declines. Where nest sites are scarce, nesting platforms have been used by Eastern Phoebes; providing more of these platforms could offset future population declines.
 

The clearing of brush and thickets from stream sides, farmlands, and yards makes breeding success less likely for the Eastern Phoebe. If the Eastern Phoebe is to continue to thrive, farming practices and public land management need to allow woody vegetation to remain, and to provide alternative water sources when wetlands are disturbed.

What You Can Do
In early spring, look for the Eastern Phoebe along streams and rivers, at the edges of woodlands, and in your backyard.
 
Support land management that maintains thickets, wetlands, and streams, so that Eastern Phoebes can continue to find suitable breeding habitats.
 
For actions you can take, including Audubon activities, please visit our resources page.
More Information
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.
 
Weeks, H. P., Jr. (1994). Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe). The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology; Retrieved from The Birds of North American Online database.
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.
 
Weeks, H. P., Jr. (1994). Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe). The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology; Retrieved from The Birds of North American Online database.