Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Black Phoebe - the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
BLACK PHOEBE SAYORNIS NIGRICANS NIGRICANS (Swainson)
CONTRIBUTED BY ROBERT S. WOODS
In the more verdant portions of the valleys and coastal plains of the Southwestern States the attractive black-and-white figure of the black phoebe is a familiar sight. No other western flycatcher, except possibly Empidona~ trailli, is so partial to the vicinity of water; it may confidently be looked for by the side of almost any marshy lowland pond or under the sycamores bordering the lower reaches of the mountain streams. The black phoebe is one of the most domestic of all western birds and is frequently seen about barnyards, sweeping over city lawns, or even hunting in the artificial canyons of downtown Los Angeles. Undoubtedly this is one of the species that have thrived and increased with the settlement of the Southwest. Peaceable and unobtrusive, free from annoying habits, and eminently beneficial in its diet, the black phoebe is one of our most valuable birds.
This species and the vermilion flycatcher are the only members of their family that may be considered substantially nonmigratory throughout most of their ranges within the United States. Their seasonal movements appear to be more in response to local conditions than to any general migratory urge. In many parts of southwestern California the black phoebe is the one resident flycatcher, Say's phoebe and Cassin's kingbird occurring mainly as winter visitants, and the remaining species as summer visitants or migrants. The black phoebe is only sparingly distributed over the interior or more arid portion of its territory, because of the scarcity of its preferred types of habitat Although the black phoebe is for the most part a bird of the lower altitudes in California, it is reported by various observers to nest occasionally at elevations of 4,000 to 6,000 feet, and Major Bendire (1895) writes: "Dr. Edgar A. Mearns, United States Army, informs me that he found a pair breeding at the reservoir from which the town of Tombstone derives its water supply, in Millers Canyon, Huachuca Mountains, southern Arizona, on July 31, 1894. This is located in the Douglas spruce zone (P.seudotsuya [sic] taa,ifolia), at an altitude of about 8,000 feet." The general withdrawal of the majority of the birds from the valleys or plains into the foothill canyons in spring, as noted by Bendire in southern Arizona, is undoubtedly represented to a certain extent throughout the entire range, but only in a limited degree on the Pacific slope.
Courtship: In keeping with its unostentatious demeanor, the courtship practices of the black phoebe are not such as to readily attract attention, but Ralph Iloffmann (1907) states that "in the mating season the male often makes a song flight, fluttering about in the air, repeating ti-ti-ti for a few seconds and then slowly descending."
Nesting: With respect to the localities frequented by nesting black phoebes, the words of Grinnell and Storer (1924) may well be quoted:
Black Phoebes are not distributed locally with the regularity observed in shrubbery-Inhabiting birds such as Wren-tits or Brown Towhees. The peculiar nesting requirements of the phoebes probably account for this lack of uniformity In their distribution. They must have sheltered faces of rocks or wooden walls against which to place their nests, and these sites must be within carrying distance of some source of the mud used in nest construction. Such sites are widely and irregularly scattered. The building of bridges over creeks and the maintenance of stock barns with watering troughs near by have probably increased the population of these birds in the country as a whole.
The following account of nesting sites chosen by black phoebes in the vicinity of Fresno, Calif., together with dates of nesting, by John G. Tyler (1913), is typical of descriptions by various observers in both California and Arizona:
Nests of these birds are sometimes fastened to the walls of deserted cabins, and occasionally a pair will build in an old well if they can gain entrance, such nests being from six to fifteen feet below the surface of the ground. The most common nesting sites, however, are the large stringers of bridges, where the nest Is securely fastened above the water. I have never known this species to choose a place where there would be support for the bottom of the nest, as the Eastern Phoebe Is said to do. Our bird attaches its wall pocket to the vertical surface of a plank, and so securely is it fastened that it will often break apart rather than give way. This species often nests on the faces of rocks in the hills, but such sites are almost entirely wanting in the Fresno district. I have found one or two nests fastened to the partly dead trunk of some large tree, but it Is safe to say that nine out of ten birds choose the protection afforded by bridges, where mud is easily secured, and horsehairs as well, for these two ingredients enter largely into the construction of the nest. * * * I have found eggs neariy ready to hatch on April 5 and fresh ones June 15, so the nesting period may be said to extend from March 1 to July 1, with probably two broods reared in a season, in some cases at least.
Several other writers have mentioned wells as nesting sites, 4 or 5 feet below the surface. As an instance of the birds' fearlessness in attending their nests despite disturbances, Florence A. Merriam Bailey (1896) wrote: "April 30, 1898, I found three eggs in the nest of a Black Phoebe five feet down in a deserted well. Before the eggs hatched, a pump was put down the well and water pumped up every day, but the birds did not desert the nest." Illustrating the same characteristic, Milton S. Ray (1906) says, "About Visalia I noticed about half a dozen nests with eggs placed in sluice boxes through which the water coursed uncomfortably close to the mud-made domicile."
John McB. Robertson (1933) describes the unusual occurrence of a black phoebe's nest in a willow tree leaning over a watercourse near Artesia, Calif.: "One tree, about eight inches in diameter, had a dead limb on its lower side extending downward at a sharp angle, and on the end of this was a typical mud nest of the Black Phoebe, containing two young birds about a week old. The parent birds were nearby. Shreds of willow bark had been used with the mud and fringed the outside of the nest; the lining was of bark and hair. The nearly horizontal trunk of the tree formed a shelter about six inches above the nest which was about three feet from the water," The black phoebe's habit of building its nest beneath some sheltering projection has been noted by ornithologists as far back as Dr. J. G. Cooper (1870), who stated that the nest is "stuck against a wall or sometimes on a shelf, beam, or ledge of rock, but always under some protecting roof, often under a bridge." Concerning the nest itself, Major Bendire (1895) says:
Mud seems to enter largely into the construction of Its nests, and I believe is invariably used. These are located In similar situations to those of the two preceding species [Sayorni8 phoebe and S. saija]. It Is equally attached to a locality once chosen for a nesting site; and instances are recorded where four clutches of eggs have been laid In one season the three previously laid having been taken. Two broods are generally reared in a year and perhaps three. The exterior of the nest consists of small pellets of mud mixed with bits of dry grass, weed fibers, or hnir, and somewhat resembles that of a Barn Swallow; the outer mud wall is carried up to the rim. Inside It Is lined with weed fibers, fine roots, strips of bark, grass tops, hair, wool, and occasionally feathers. If their eggs are taken, they generally lay another set within two weeks. A nest now before me, taken by Mr. H. W. Henshaw, at Santa Ysabel, California, on April 28, 1893, measures 5 Inches In outer diameter and 3Y2 Inches in height; the Inner cup Is 2~ inches In diameter and 1~/4 inches In depth, and is lined with plant fibers and fine grass tops.
Concerning the nesting of this species at Escondido, Calif.. James B. Dixon (MS.) confirms the observations of others as to the nature of its nesting sites and also remarks that "they establish themselves and return for years to the same place. There has been a pair nesting on our old home place to my knowledge since 1900, and they are still there. Probably a good many generations have lived there during the 40 years, but there has never been a season that a pair did not show up and raise one and quite often two broods of young. Nests are of mud and lined with fine dry grass tissue'or animal hair. Horsehair is often used and sometimes results tragically, as they hang themselves in the loops of horse hair woven into the mud and lining." Similarly stressing the attachment of individuals to their own particular nesting sites, F. B. Jewett (1899) writes:
My observations have been confined to one pair of birds which have nested on my barn for some eight years past. While I cannot state positively that It has been the same pair during the entire term I am led to believe that such Is the case. During the first two or three years the birds changed the site of their nest frequently, probably owing to some disturbance, for afterwards when I guarded them against Interference they chose a site which they have occupied ever since. * Both birds assisted in the construction of the nest, one working while the other kept watch. Both also incubated, dividing the work equally, as nearly as I could judge. In most cases the eggs were laid on consecutive days. Incubation commencing immediately after the laying of the last egg. * * ï The birds have used the same nest for four years, tearing out the old lining and replacing It with new at the beginning of each season and mending places that had been broken. Contrary to Mr. Jewett's experience, George Oberlander (1939) mentions the building of two nests entirely by the females, successive mates of the same male.
Several instances have been reported in which newly built black phoebes' nests have been used by other birds. Wilson C. Harma (1933) found two nests that had apparently been seized by house finches (Carpodacus mexicanus frontalis) in spite of the presence of the rightful owners, while Harold M. Holland (1923) describes the joint use and alternate occupancy of a nest by phoebes and house finches. This latter nest was later found to have been deserted by both, though containing six eggs of the phoebe and five of the finch. Emerson A. Stoner (1938) reports finding a nest containing three phoebe's eggs below, then a scanty lining of fine hairs, and above that an egg of the dwarf cowbird (Afolothr~ts ater obscuru.s) and three of the western flycatcher (Em~pidonaa, difficili.s).
Eggs: Mr. Tyler (1913) remarks that "it is interesting to note that when four eggs constitute a set there are generally three that are unmarked and one that is quite heavily spotted with red dots on the larger end but when there are five in the set the additional egg nearly always has just a few very fine spots like dust. My observations show that nearly always the spotted egg is the last one to be deposited. If that is the rule, then should a set of seven or eight eggs happen to be laid we might expect one or two specimens as heavily spotted as a kingbird's egg."
The measurements of 50 eggs average 18.7 by 14.4 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 20.3 by 15.2, 17.3 by 14.2, and 17.8 by 13.2 millimeters.
Young: The incubation period for two sets of five eggs each has been recorded by Mr. Oberlander (1939), counting in each case from the laying of the last egg. In one nest three eggs were hatched, the first after 17 days, the others on the following day; in the second case, three eggs were hatched on the fifteenth day and another the next day. In this second nest, the four nestlings remained about 21 days, which in the light of the following account indicates considerable variability in the length of this period.
Mr. Jewett (1899) states that the young "remained in the nest on an average about two weeks, or until it was too small for them," and that "three broods were generally reared in each year, the first and second usually consisting of five, and the last of four birds. The youngsters never remained long after they had been turned adrift, usually disappearing on the third day" Regarding the condition and care of the young, Mrs. Irene Grosvenor Wheelock (1904) says:
For some unexplained reason the nest of tbis species, like that of Say phoebe and the Eastern phoebe, is Infested with innumerable insects, which frequently cause the death of the young. This seems strange in the case of birds that splash In the water so much as do these. One of the first lessons taught the young Is the delight of a bath in an irrigation ditch; to this wholesome recreation they are initiated when about five weeks old.
* S * At first the feeding is done by regurgitation, but when five days old the nestlings are fed on fresh Insects.
As soon as they are ready to fly the male takes entire care of them, leaving the patient mother to repair the old nest and undertake the bringing up of a second family. He teaches the young to catch food on the wing, just as the Arkansas and Cassin klngbirds teach theirs, and as I believe all flycatchers do,: by releasing a maimed insect In the alt just in front of the hungry little one, who, forgetting fear, instinctively darts out to catch It.
The black phoebe chanced to be the object of a series of experiments by Mr. and Mrs. Eric C. Kinsey (1935), the results of which, while not necessarily applicable to this species alone, are of considerable interest to students of behavior. A brood of fully feathered young was substituted for a newly hatched brood, and the latter for a set of fresh eggs. After a few minutes of uncertainty, one of the birds, believed to be the male in each case, began feeding the young, which soon appeared to have been accepted unreservedly. Again, according to Mr. Kinsey:
We shifted young several days old into a nest containing young on the point of leaving. The latter brood was placed In the nest containing the eggs, the eggs were placed In the nest which formerly contained the young several days old. A watch was maintained, in turn, upon each nest with the following results. The partly grown young were accepted in lieu of the older group, the older group was accepted, after slight hesitation, by the adults with the eggs; however, the eggs were, so far as we could tell, never brooded by the pair from which the half grown young were taken. All of these nests were subsequently visited some three or four days later and all of the respective broods of young were being cared for by their foster parents just as though they were of their own hatching.
For the safety of its nest and young the black phoebe evidently relies solely upon the inaccessibility of its nesting site. Accordingly it does not, like birds which practice concealment, endeavor to avoid being seen near the nest, but on the contrary, may use the nearest convenient perch as a base for its hunting activities.
Plumages: [AUTHOR'S NOTE: The sexes are alike in all plumages. Young birds in juvenal plumage, in June and July, are much like the adults in color pattern, but the darker parts are sootier; the feathers of the lower back, hinder scapulars, rump, and upper tail coverts are indistinctly tipped with pale brown; the wing coverts are tipped with cinnamon or light rusty; and the white of the abdomen is suffused with brownish along the border. This plumage is worn but a short time; I have seen young birds molting the contour plumage, but not the wings and tail, as early as July 25. In first winter phunage, young birds can be distinguished from adults by the juvenal wings, which are apparently retained during the first winter. Adults and one-year-old young birds have a complete molt in July and August.]
Food: The most comprehensive accounts of the food habits of the black phoebe are those of Prof. F. E. L. Beal (1910 and 1912), who asserts that "this bird eats a higher percentage of insects than any flycatcher yet studied except the western wood pewee." For the earlier report there were available 333 stomachs, which showed 99.39 percent of animal matter to 0.61 percent of vegetable. Ground beetles (Carabidae), ladybirds (Coccinellidae), and tiger beetles (Cicindelidae), all presumed to be useful, made up 2.82 percent. Other beetles, all more or less harmful, amounted to 10 percent, consumed throughout the year. Hymenoptera, principally wild bees and wasps, contributed 35 percent, rising to 60 percent in the month of August. No trace of a honeybee was found.
Hemiptera, including plant lice and a number of aquatic species, formed 7 percent of the total. Flies (Diptera) ranged from 3 percent in August to 64 percent in April, averaging 28 percent. Grasshoppers and crickets supplied only about 2.5 percent, moths and caterpillars 8 percent, miscellaneous, principally dragonflies, witb some spiders, 6 percent. In his s&ond report, which differs little from the first in percentages, Professor Beal adds that ants "for a short time in midsummer constitute quite a notable part of the food."
In the stomachs of 24 nestlings, tabulated separately from the adults, "no great difference was apparent in the kind of food eaten nor in the relative proportions, except that the percentage of vegetable matter was a trifle higher. Regarding the consumption of vegetable matter, Professor Beal (1912) says: "It is not at all improbable that this species and many others seldom or never take vegetable food intentionally. In many cases the vegetable substance found in the stomachs is mere rubbish accidentally picked up with insects. Bees and wasps often light on berries to suck the juice, and a bird making a quick snap at such an insect might take berry and all." However, Prof. A. J. Cook (1896) found pepperberries in the stomachs of nearly all black phoebes killed in winter (presumably in southern California).
In towns and cities much of the bird's hunting is done by skimming low over lawns, where it seems to capture a goodly number of fair-sized moths, probably adults of the highly injurious cutworm.
Mr. Oberlander (1939) found that indigestible portions of large insects were regurgitated in the form of spherical or conical pellets usually V or 8 millimeters in diameter. A pellet was ejected nearly every night except in rainy weather, and with undetermined frequency during the day. He also mentions an item of diet which is unusual in birds of this family: "The birds sought to catch the inchlong minnows which dimpled the water surface in the evening. They were not often observed to be successful, but daring attempts to snatch these choice morsels were made. Once, when a phoebe sighted a minnow, such a desperate attempt was made to get it that the bird dipped its head in the water nearly to the eyes. When a wiggling fish was caught, it was held in the bill, and tapped against the perch in the same manner described for large insects until finally, with gulping, the fish was swallowed."
Behavior: Cooper (1870) speaks of the eastern phoebe as the "exact analogue" of this species in habits and of the similarity in their cries, resemblances that were noted also by Bendire (1895). The black phoebe is eminently solitary in its disposition, and aside from mated pairs in the breeding season, or the resulting family parties, it is always seen alone, a condition that seems to prevail by mutual consent and without much bickering. Averse though the phoebe is to the society of its own kind, in its contacts with other birds it shows no trace of the aggressiveness that has earned for its family the name Tyrannidae and that is at times demonstrated even by its near relative, Say's phoebe. To what extremes it has carried its pacifism is indicated by the previously cited instances of the usurpation of its nests by house finches. The occasional sight in fall or winter of a black phoebe hunting in close proximity to a Say's phoebe suggests that its aversion to companionship must be directed solely toward those of its own particular species.
The two western species of Sayorni8, though occupying large por tions of California and Arizona in common, ordinarily choose strik ingly different types of habitat. While saya frequents open, often more or less barren, country, nigricans prefers the vicinity of streams or ponds, irrigated fields, well-watered lawns and gardens, or the neighborhood of buildings and barnyards. Rarely seeking the tree tops, the black phoebe usually perches instead on the shaded lower branches, on fences, stones, or other low objects, but seldom on the ground itself. It is fond of taking up its station at the edge of a pool and darting out over the water, occasionally bathing by dipping its lower parts beneath the surface in passing. Its flight is rather soft and mothlike, punctuated by the sharp snap of the bill as it captures: or misses: its insect prey. Mr. Oberlander (1939) has called attention the fact that:
Pursuit flights are usually downward from the perch level so that most Insects are taken from or within a few inches of the lawn, water, or weed patch below the perch. * * * This capture of Insects below the perch level seems to be correlated with their greater abundance there. Observed insects slowed down In flight when they hovered about patches of weeds and lawn.
This apparently makes for ease of catching. On bright days I found it difficult to see insects when they were flying high in the glaring Ught, yet when they chanced to fly between me and a dark background, sighting became easier. Hence, it seems probable that the increased visibility of insects sighted below the phoebe's perch might be another factor influencing the number of flights directed downward.
A complete reversal of this flight direction came with the approach of darkness. * * * In the dim light the insects could not be sighted near the ground among the long shadows, yet hundreds were visible in the air above. Of 117 Mights noted during the approach of darkness, 79 per cent were directed upward. The number of upward flights increased with increasing darkness as shown in a recorded sample of flights.
Usually no hesitation is apparent before an insect Is pursued. Yet the directness of flight as well as the usual capture of but a single insect on each trip Indicates that the insect Is sighted from the perch rather than while flying. Where the bird feeds over a lawn, insects are sighted again and again from ten to twenty feet from the perch; the bird ffies directly to the exact position on the lawn where the insect Is located, plucks it up without the slightest indication of uncertainty and returns to the perch.
Where slow flying insects are numerous in the air, two insects are occasionally taken in one flight, the second presumably sighted In the air but probably after the first, since a series of insects, regardless of their abundance, never was taken without the bird returning to its perch.
When insects were scarce, on rainy days and early on cold mornings, hovering was noted over grassy areas or alongside walls. Evidently these hoverings were a means of sighting insects hidden in the tall grass. These hovering flights are not the regular method of feeding, nor does the bird regularly range away from the perch In this manner; Instead, they seem to be an adaptation to unfavorable conditions where it Is necessary to search out insects that can not be sighted from the perch, and less frequently for detecting insects already sighted from the perch but lost from the bird's view after flight began.
The method of searching from a perch not only enables the phoebe to locate insects with a minimum of energy, hut the rejection of unsuitable species apparently occurs before leaving the perch. Common yellow cabbage butterflies (Eurynztcs) frequently were observed to pass slowly in jerky flight, unmolested, within a few feet of a phoebe. * * * In late spring and early summer the adult phoebes were observed to pass up dozens of checkered fritillary butterflies (Argyniais). * * * The young phoebes fresh from the nest were not so selective as their parents in foraging. On three occasions the young were observed to snatch a fritillary and swallow it, gulping down the large wings as well as the body. These incidents indicate that the older birds become conditioned against this insect. * * * The majority of Insects caught were small enough to be swallowed in flight. But when forms larger than the house fly were taken, the catch was carried back and tapped against the perch several times as if to smash and kill It before swallowing. * * * After catching large insects the birds exhibit noticeable preference for substantial flat perches against which they can break up their prey.
The two western species of Sayorni.s are sufficiently distinct in their manner of flight to enable them to be distinguished when seen only in outline, as in looking toward the setting sun. The flight of the present species, when not engaged in pursuits, is comparatively direct and businesslike, lacking the airy, butterflylike indecision that often marks that of its relative.
Voice: Almost constantly the black phoebe announces its presence by a crisp t~ip, or, interchangeably, a more prolonged c/tee, accompanied by a jerk of the tail when perching or repeated with more vivacity while on the wing. Though rather plaintive in tone, these notes are by no means so mournful as those of the less voluble Say's phoebe or the pewee. The only other common utterance of this species is its song, if such it may be called'. This consists of an indefinite repetition of two pairs of notes, rendered by Mr. Iloffmann (1927) as ti wee, ti wee, the one pair usually having an upward inflection and the alternate pair a downward inflection. This song is sometimes heard in fall as well as in spring.
Field marks: In strong contrast to many of the Tyrannidae, the black phoebe is one of the most easily recognized of all our birds. The blackish throat and breast at once distinguish it from any other North American flycatcher, while its mannerisms and flight, together with its color pattern, will prevent confusion with birds of any other family.
Enemies: Little information is available regarding any possible enemies of this species. Its nonterrestrial habits and the nature of its typical nesting sites remove it from the sphere of most walking or crawling predators, and its flight, though not swift, is so well controlled that it would seem a difficult victim for the sharp-shinned hawk. Any destruction by man would be purely wanton and without a shadow of excuse.
Roland Case Ross (1933) tells of a black phoebe killed by a honeybee's sting in the roof of its mouth, and he speculates on the possibility that the scareity of the species in certain localities might be due to disastrous experiences with this unaccustomed form of prey.
Winter: An excellent description of the winter habits of the black phoebe, as observed in Monterey County, Calif., is furnished by Grinnell and Linsdale (1936)
The black phoebe is one kind of resident bird which was conspicuously more numerous In winter than in summer at Point Lobes. A count made In early January placed the number of individuals stationed on the area at eight. In the early nesting season only one pair was found.
Each bird possessed a certain series of perches which marked its location for a large part of the winter. It remained close within this circuit and thus avoided close contact and conflict with other birds of the same or closely related species. These home ranges with which we became well acquainted through frequent observation were mainly in two types of situation: along the rocky shore, and within but close to the margins of pine woods or chaparral areas.
In the pines the birds usually perched within a few feet of the ground, on the dead stubs or limbs where these were shaded by the main crown of the tree. At certain times a bird would perch on or close to the top of a low tree; and some individuals showed a distinct preference for fence posts and the top wires of fences for perches. Most of these places were alike in providing situations where the birds could be within shadows most of the time. The more exposed (to light) perches were most likely to be used on cloudy days. Possibly this mannerism was more in the nature of a coloration-concealment device than a direct response to the warmth of the sun. The perches chosen also were alike in providing protection from strong, or cold, wind.
DISTRIBUTION Range: Western United States, Central and South America; nonmigratory.
The range of the black phoebe extends north to northern California (Benbow and Baird); southern Nevada (Alamo); Arizona (Grand Canyon and Salt River Bird Refuge); southern New Mexico (Cooney, Chloride, and Carlsbad Bird Refuge); and southwestern Texas (Spring Creek and San Angelo). East to western Texas (San Angelo and Pecos River High Bridge); Honduras (Ceiba); Nicaragua (Banbana); Venezuela (Colon); Bolivia (Concepcion); and northwestern Argentina (Orillas del Rio Lavallen and Anfama). South to northern Argentina (Anfama) and Peru (Huanuco). West to Peru (Huanuco); Ecuador (Zamora, Bucay, and Esmeraldas); western Colombia (San Jose and Medellin); Costa Rica (San Jose and Carrillo); El Salvador (Libertad and San Salvador); western Guatemala (San Geronimo and Duenas); Baja California (San Lucas, Triunfo, San Fernando, and Todos Santos Island); and California (San Clemente Island, Santa Barbara, Berkeley, Point Reyes, and Benbow).
The range as outlined is for the entire species, which has been separated into several subspecies or geographic races. Only one of these, the typical race (Sa~ornis n. ~ found commonly in the United States. The San Quintin phoebe (S. n. salicta'ria) , of northern Baja California, also comes into southern Arizona. The southern part of Baja California is occupied by a third race, the San Lucas phoebe (S. n. brumnescems).
Casual records: One of these birds was rec~orded from the Umpqua Valley, Oreg., in 1857, and another from Salem, Oreg., in July 1879. Neither of these records has been satisfactorily traced.
Egg dates: Arizona: 8 records, April 16 to June 26.
California: 126 records, March 17 to August 15; 64 records, April 15 to May 16, indicating the height of the season.
Lower California: 25 records, April 6 to May 27; 13 records, April 22 to May 9.
SAN QUINTIN PHOEBE SAYORNIS NIGRICANS SALICTARIA Grinnell HABITS
This race of the black phoebe is found in the Upper Austral Zone of northern Lower California, from about latitude 300 northward to the United States boundary; also in southern Arizona in the valley of the Colorado River in describing and naming it, Dr. Grinnell (1927) said that it is only slightly smaller than the well-known black phoebe of California, but the "general tone of color of dark parts blacker, more slaty, less brown. Color of dorsum close to 'dusky neutral gray' of Ridgway. * * * This marked slatiness of color tone is apparent not only on the forward lower surface, head and back, but also pertains to the remiges and rectrices, especially their concealed portions in closed wing and tail. This~ the blackest of the races of the Black Phoebe."
He said that it is largely "restricted associationally to willows, which plants, of course, as a rule in an arid country mark the near vicinity of water or at least the presence of damp ground-surface."
It apparently does not differ in its habits from the northern race, as A. W. Anthony wrote to Major Bendire (1895) that it breeds "wherever water is found, building under the eaves of adobe houses when near human habitations, and on the sides of ledges along streams in the unsettled parts."
The eggs are apparently indistinguishable from those of the species elsewhere. The measurements of 30 eggs average 18.91 by 14.56 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 21.0 by 15.1, 19.5 by 15.3, and 18.0 by 13.9 millimeters.
SAN LUCAS PHOEBE SATORNIS NIGRICANS BRUNNESCENS Grinnell HABITS
The black phoebes of the Cape region of Lower California have been given the above name by Dr. Joseph Grinnell (1927). As compared with the upper California race, he calls this subspecies "similar but browner in general tone of all dark areas, bill broader, and wing slightly and tail decidedly shorter. Color of dorsum close to 'fuscous' of Ridgway"; whereas, in the California bird, the dorsum is "close to 'chaetura drab' of same plate." William Brewster (1902) called attention to the "comparatively faded, brownish coloring" of the Cape bird but thought it might be due to adventitious bleaching.
But Dr. Grinnell (192'l) said that "this is certainly not the case, for a considerable number of October and November examples, thus in new autumn plumage, show the character to be an innate one. In this connection it should go without saying that in one-molt birds like Sayornis only early fall plumages should be used for the determination of finely manifested color characters."
The San Lucas phoebe ranges north in Lower California to about latitude 290.
J. S. Rowley writes to me: "The habits of this phoebe are identical with those found to the northward. From Mirafiores and Todos Santos, I took several sets, one containing four eggs, three containing three eggs, and one with two eggs, all full complements. All these nests were typically made of mud and were saddled to the side of a boulder near water."
There are two sets of eggs, with the nests, of this phoebe in the Thayer collection in Cambridge, taken by W. W. Brown, Jr., at Comondu on May 5 and 7, 1909; each nest contained three eggs. One nest was on the side of a shack near a brook, and the other was on a crossbeam against the wall in a shack, also close to a brook. The nests are typical of the species, made externally of small pellets of mud, mixed with dried grass stems and fine shreds of inner bark, and lined with finer pieces of similar materials.
The eggs are indistinguishable from those of the species elsewhere. The measurements of 37 eggs average 19.24 by 14.69 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 20.6 by 14.8, 18.9 by 15.4, and 17.8 by 13.6 millimeters.