The eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) is the flycatcher most likely to visit our yards. Eastern phoebes are grey to greyish-brown on top and a dirty white underneath. They are smaller than a robin, have a black bill, and often look like they have a crest or mohawk on top of their heads.
Eastern phoebes can be found throughout most of the eastern U.S. Range maps for the eastern phoebe usually list it as only in Kentucky during the breeding season, but in Tennessee year-round. However, as we all know, birds and other wildlife don’t read the books and don’t recognize state boundaries. Combine that with the fact that eastern phoebes tend to migrate earlier in the spring and later in the fall than many of our other migratory birds, and it isn’t unheard of to have eastern phoebes winter in Kentucky. E-bird has sightings recorded for eastern phoebes in Kentucky during every month of the year. For my readers who live north of Kentucky, you will likely only have eastern phoebes during the breeding season, with that likelihood increasing the further north you go.
Like all flycatchers, eastern phoebes commonly perch on small twigs or branches towards the outer part of a tree or shrub. I’ve also seen them perch on telephone wires and fences. If you watch one, you’ll likely see it take off from its perch, fly out over an open area, turn around, then return to the same perch or very close to the same perch. When it flies out like that, it is going after an insect that it spotted and will often catch the insect in mid-air. This behavior is known as flycatching and is what gives the flycatchers (the group of birds that phoebes belong to) their name.
One characteristic that can be used to identify eastern phoebes at a distance from other flycatchers in the eastern U.S., is that eastern phoebes often bob their tails up and down while they are perched. Our other flycatchers don’t bob their tails like that. Therefore, if you are in the eastern U.S. and spot a bird flycatching and see it frequently bobbing its tail when it is perched, then it is almost certainly an eastern phoebe.
Eastern phoebes are vocal birds and if they are around, then you are as likely to hear them as to see them. Their call is fairly distinctive because they say their name – “phoebe, phoebe.” To me, it sounds kind of nasally and raspy – almost like the bird has a bit of an allergy problem going on. One call that you might get confused with the eastern phoebe’s is that of the eastern wood-pewee. However, to me the eastern wood-pewee’s call is clearer and for some reason the inflections remind me of a whiney little kid.
In the wild, eastern phoebes are commonly found in open woods, especially near stream banks. They build their nests out of mud, grass, and moss and in their natural environments will attach their nests to the sides of limestone outcroppings or under rock ledges. However, eastern phoebes have been able to adapt to human habitats as well. It’s common to find eastern phoebe nests under bridges, under the eaves of a house, or even on a porch. When nesting on human made structures, they tend to nest towards the roof, probably to help keep the rain off the nest and to limit predation risks. You can also build nesting structures for them if you want them to use your property, but don’t have a suitable structure already in place (or just don’t want them nesting on your porch).
The female is the only one who actually builds the nest, although the male will sometimes bring a few materials to the nesting site. Nest building goes fast and can be completed in as little as 5 days, and almost always within 14 days. After the nest is built, the female will lay 2-6 eggs and incubate them for approximately 2 weeks.
After the eggs hatch, both parents will bring a steady supply of beetles, spiders, wasps, bees, grasshoppers, other insects, spiders, and even the occasional tick for the nestlings to eat. (This is the same diet that the parents eat and is a good reason to include a high percentage of native plant species in your landscaping if you want to attract eastern phoebes because research has shown that yards with more native plants support larger populations of insects that can serve as bird food.) The nestlings will fledge 2-3 weeks after hatching.
Eastern phoebes will often nest twice each summer. Unlike a lot of other birds, eastern phoebes will reuse the same nest from year to year or sometimes even twice in the same year. Also, if you have barn swallows around, they will sometimes take over an unused phoebe nest and vice versa. The fact that phoebes will often reuse the same nests means that once you have a nesting pair of eastern phoebes on your property, it is likely that you will have them next year as well, especially if they were successful in at least one of their nesting attempts. Hopefully that means you’ll get to enjoy watching them and benefiting from their natural insect-control for many years to come.
This article was part of Shannon’s original Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife blog which evolved into the blog for Backyard Ecology.
Backyard Ecology: Exploring Nature in Your Backyard
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at www.backyardecology.net.