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Eastern Phoebe

(Sayornis phoebe)
Indianapolis, Indiana

General Information

The Eastern Phoebe gets its name from its distinctive but rough two note call, “fee-ah-bee” or ‘whee-bee.” (not to be confused to the clearly whistled two note call of the Chickadee). The discovery of the Eastern Phoebe is credited to Thomas Say (1787-1834), who collected this species along the Arkansas River near Canon City, Colorado during the 1819-1820 expedition to establish military posts along the upper Missouri River (Mearns and Mearns 1992).

The Eastern Phoebe holds the distinction of being the subject of the first bird banding experiment in North America. In the early 1800’s, J. J. Audubon tied thin silver wires on the legs of a brood of Eastern Phoebes. The following year, he was delighted to discover that they returned to breed in the same area. Phoebes are notorious for returning to build their nest, often right on top of the previous year’s nest. At one location in New England, successive generations of Phoebes were known to return to breed under the same bridge for over 30 years.

 

The Eastern Phoebe is about 6 to 7 inches long, and weighs about 16 grams. It has olive brown upper parts, a blackish crown, white throat, black bill and buff-white under parts. Its habit of tail bobbing and tail wagging are a sure sign that you are observing a Phoebe.

Eastern Phoebe
Figure 1 – Eastern Phoebe (breeding female)

 

Eastern Phoebe
Figure 2 – Eastern Phoebe (breeding female)

 

The Eastern Phoebe is similar in appearance to the Eastern (Wood) Pewee, but lacks the white wing bars.

The Eastern Phoebe also lacks the eye ring. Phoebes consume beetles, wasps, ants, flies, bugs, grasshoppers, crickets, dragonflies, moths, caterpillars, spiders, millipedes, ticks, and even small fish.

Eastern Phoebe
Figure 3 – Eastern Phoebe (breeding female)

 

Eastern Phoebe
Figure 4 – Eastern Phoebe chin and breast

The white breast is distinctive, and the flanks show a pale buff to yellowish wash. The bill is well adapted to catching insects on the wing, and one can sometimes hear the snap of the Phoebe’s bill as it tries to capture an insect in flight.

In the adult bird, the greater wing coverts are tipped grayish white. The outer primary coverts are blackish without the buff tips.

Eastern Phoebe
Figure 5 – Eastern Phoebe wing coverts

 

Eastern Phoebe
Figure 6 – Eastern Phoebe tail

 

The retrices (tail feathers) in the adult bird are uniformly truncate (roundish) with whitish edging on the feather tips.

The female Eastern Phoebe builds her nest over a period of several days, usually situated in a recess on a rock ledge or on the steep wall of a ravine or gorge, often in a cave, and often around water. Phoebes build extensively on man-made structures, locating their nest on a rafter inside of a building, on a ledge under the eve of a house, on windowsills, porch rafters, and on girders under bridges. Nests may be built on top of the previous year’s nest. From 3 to 7 creamy white eggs complete the clutch. The stone structure shown in Figure 7, built into the side of a hill near downtown Indianapolis about 100 years ago, is the long-term site of a Phoebe nest.

Eastern Phoebe
Figure 7 – Eastern Phoebe nest site

 

Eastern Phoebe
Figure 8- Eastern Phoebe Nest

 

As seen here, the Phoebe nest is a cup of mud and moss lined with grasses, hair, and feathers. The greenish moss in the nest is readily observed. This particular nest is located on a rafter inside of an abandoned ammunition bunker in western Indiana. Note the single white egg visible in the reflection in the mirror. A mirror on a long pole is a useful device to safely check a nest for contents.

Phoebe nests are heavily parasitized by cowbirds. The darker egg shown next to the white Phoebe egg in this photo is the egg of a Brown-headed Cowbird (see Figure 9).

Eastern Phoebe
Figure 9 – Another Eastern Phoebe nest with cowbird egg

 

Eastern Phoebe
Figure 10 – Egg of a Brown-headed Cowbird

 

Phoebes are one of the most frequent victims of brood parasitism by cowbirds. The Brown-headed Cowbird is a generalist brood parasite. The female cowbird lays a single egg in the nest of another species of bird, and can lay up to 30 eggs per season in 30 separate nests. Female cowbirds can commute several miles in search of a host nest. Other cowbird hosts include vireos, finches, warblers, and flycatchers.

The egg of the Brown-headed Cowbird somewhat resembles the eggs of some other species, including some sparrows, cardinals, tanagers, some warblers, and other species that fall victim to these efficient nest parasites. A large population of cowbirds in any given area can be extremely destructive to other species of birds.

An edge habitat species, cowbirds responded positively to the opening up of North American forests by expanding their range. The cowbird eggs usually hatch earlier than the host’s eggs, and the chick grows faster. The cowbird chick usually out-competes the host’s own chicks, with the result that the host species usually just raises a baby cowbird. The negative impact of cowbirds on the populations of other species has in some cases been dramatic, pushing some host species to the edge of extinction.

Breeding

Eastern Phoebes begin breeding in mid April (mid-May further north). The female builds the nest over a period of several days, and completes the clutch with from 3 to 7 creamy white eggs. Eggs, incubated by the female, hatch in 14 to 16 days. Both parents tend the young, who leave the nest in 15 to 17 days. The parents continue to tend to the young for another 2 to 3 weeks. Phoebes are double brooded, so will create a second clutch during the breeding season.

Conservation Status and Economic Importance

Their song and active flycatcher antics make Eastern Phoebes a delight to have around. They perform a valuable service to man by consuming a variety of pest insects and other organisms. They can sometimes be attracted to nest by placing a wooden platform against the wall under the eve of a building.

Eastern Phoebes winter in the southern states from Texas to Florida. Their winter quarters are strongly influenced by temperature, and except for a northerly range extension up the Mississippi River, they only occur where the average minimum January temperature is over 25 degrees F. Peak winter abundance occurs in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and the wetlands west of Gainesville, Florida (Root 1988).

If you should recover a banded Eastern Phoebe, please report the band number to the Bird Banding Lab by calling 1-800-327-BAND.

Further Reading

Baicich, P. J. and C. J. O. Harrison. 1997. A Guide to the Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds, 2nd Edition. Academic Press, NY. 347 Pp.

Mearns, B., and R. Mearns. 1992. Audubon to Xantus. The lives of those commemorated in North American Bird names. Academic Press, New York, NY. 588 Pp.

Pyle, P. 1997. Identification Guide to North American Birds. Part 1. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas, CA. 732 Pp.

Root, T. 1988. Atlas of Wintering North American Birds. An Analysis of Christmas Bird Count Data. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago. 312 Pp.

Terres, J. K. 1995. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Wings Books, NY. 1,109 Pp.

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