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Eastern Phoebe

These small birds are found over most of the eastern side of North America.

Once dependent on rock outcrops and similar natural sites for nesting, Eastern Phoebes have adapted to using human structures such as building and bridges upon which to nest. Returning to breeding areas very early in the spring, Eastern Phoebes seem to migrate alone, and often return to nest sites used the previous year.

Though the eggs are apparently hardy against cold temperatures, female Eastern Phoebes sleep on the nest each night even before a clutch is complete and before daytime incubation begins. Most young hatch on the same day, at least for first broods each season.


Description of the Eastern Phoebe


The Eastern Phoebe is a small flycatcher with a dusky breast, white to pale yellowish belly, and grayish-olive upperparts with the head somewhat darker than the rest of the plumage. It frequently pumps its tail up and down.  Length: 7 in.  Wingspan: 10 in.

Eastern Phoebe

Photograph © Sam Crowe.

Visit the Bent Life History page for detailed information.


The sexes are similar.

Seasonal change in appearance



Juveniles have more yellowish bellies.


Eastern Phoebes inhabit woodland edges, wooded riparian areas, farmsteads, and bridges or culverts.


Eastern Phoebes eat insects.

Eastern Phoebe

Photograph © Sam Crowe.


Eastern Phoebes forage by observing for flying insects from an exposed perch, and then sallying out to capture them in flight.


Eastern Phoebes breed across much of the eastern U.S. and south-central Canada. They winter in the southeastern U.S. and in Mexico. The population appears to be stable.

More information:

Bent Life History

Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Eastern Phoebe.

Wing Shape

The shape of a bird’s wing is often an indication of its habits and behavior. Fast flying birds have long, pointed wings. Soaring birds have long, broad wings. Different songbirds will have a slightly different wing shape. Some species look so much alike (Empidonax flycatchers) that scientists sometimes use the length of specific feathers to confirm a species’ identification.

Wing images from the University of Puget Sound, Slater Museum of Natural History


Fun Facts

Bees and wasps are among the prey items of Eastern Phoebes.

Eastern Phoebes are one of the earliest spring migrants to return each year.

In 1804, John James Audubon tied a silver thread to the legs of a phoebe to document its return to the same nesting location in subsequent years.


Calls include a chip, and the song consists of a harsh, two-note whistled phrase sounding somewhat like “fee-bee.”


Similar Species

Flycatchers in the genus Empidonax have wing bars and eye rings.

Eastern Wood-Pewee

Eastern Wood-Pewee has longer wings and is darker in color.

Eastern Kingbird
The Eastern Kingbird has a blacker back, white on tip of te tail.


The Eastern Phoebe’s nest is a cup of mud, moss, leaves, and grass and is placed on a sheltered area of a rock outcrop, bridge, culvert, or building ledge.


Number: Usually lay 4-5 eggs.
Color: Whitish, sometimes with darker markings.

Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 16 days, and begin to fly in about another 2-3 weeks, though continuing to associate with the adults for some time.


Bent Life History of the Eastern Phoebe

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 Eastern Phoebe – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.



Spring: The phoebe arrives in New England from its winter quarters in the Southern States and Mexico about the time of the spring equinox, or a little later in a backward season, when most of the harsh weather is behind us. He comes in full song, flitting alone about his breeding ground. On his northward migration the bird follows so closely the awakening of insect life that we may look for him as soon as we see the little insects beginning to fly about in warm, sheltered corners or around the outbuildings of a farm, and often we find him already here.

The phoebe is a gentle little bird, dull in plumage with scarcely a field mark. He is light and easy on the wing, making swift, adroit turns and twists and sudden tumblings, something like the graceful silent dodging of a butterfly, and when he alights airily on his perch, his tail keeps swaying loosely, almost as if blown by the wind. He is tame, yet reserved in manner. Althea R. Sherman says of him in her notes, “Phoebe is exceptionally correct in his behavior: without a fault.”

He will stay with us for six months or more. He and his mate may settle in a busy, noisy farmyard, or perhaps far away in some remote, rocky glen, but wherever they nest they will spend a peaceful summer, giving little heed to their neighbors, seemingly happy, contented, and self-sufficient, devoting themselves to the care of their family.

Courtship: The courtship of the male consists merely in following the female about on the wing, singing and calling to her, but with no posturing or display, unless we consider the flight song a form of display. The singing of the male, which is incessant on his arrival, becomes less frequent as the birds pair off. I have watched a pair for an hour late in April without hearing a song. On such occasions, however, the male is attentive to the female; he makes long flights after her as she moves about and hovers near her in the air, and he sometimes utters a softly whistled note, too-lit, suggestive of a horned lark’s flight call.

Miss Sherman (MS.) speaks of a bird “calling unavailingly from the roof of an old barn all summer” and of “a wooer, unsuccessful for a month, perhaps more, which tried to coax a female to an old nest. He went to the nest, calling phoebe and giving a peculiar rattling note, and when he succeeded in getting the female to come to the nest, he changed to a lower, softer sound. One day both sat together on the edge of the nest and when she slipped into it he uttered a rasping twitter.”

Nesting: The flycatchers as a group build their nests in a variety of situations: on high branches, in holes in trees, or on the ground: but each species holds fairly closely to its customary site except when circumstances force a departure from their usual habit: for example, when the kingbird breeds in treeless regions. The phoebes, however, exercise a wider range of choice in selecting their nesting site. This is notably true in the case of the eastern phoebe, doubtless because of its intimate association with man.

Originally phoebes built chiefly in rocky ravines, where their nests often rested on a firm support and were partially sheltered from above~ but the birds quickly adopted man-made structures, such as barn cellars and sheds, and perhaps oftenest of all they build their nests, little mounds of green moss and mud, under bridges and trestles, which afford ideal protection. Indeed, our bird is often called the bridge pewee. Mr. Bent (MS.) cites a case of a pair of phoebes, or their successors, that built under the same bridge for 30 years. “Formerly,” he says, “the trolley cars rumbled over this bridge twice an hour all day, but the birds were not disturbed, or at least not discouraged, by the noise.”

The following list shows a diversity of nesting sites and indicates how great an influence man has had on the breeding habits of the phoebe: Arthur C. Bent (MS.), “around the socket of an electric lamp, partly supported by the wire”; Rev. J. J. Murray (MS.), “under overhanging roots at the top of a roadside bank”; Laidlaw Williams (MS.), “nest built upon a hook hung within a well”; A. D. DuBois (MS.), “under a bridge, stuck to vertical face of concrete”; Albert W. Ilonywill, Jr. (1911), in a woodpile; George Miksch Sutton (1936) “on a strip of wallpaper that sagged from the ceiling”; E. D. Nauman (1924), 5 feet down in a well, which was planked over except for a 12-inch opening, 10 feet above the water; E. C. Hoffman (1930), in an abandoned farmhouse to which the only entrance was a 2-by-4 inch opening in a broken windowpane (one young bird left the nest, flew to the window and escaped); Emerson A. Stoner (1922), in an air shaft of a coal mine, 7 feet below the surface of the ground. Lester W. Smith writes us of a nest “on a portable cider mill.”

One of the likeliest places to look for a phoebe’s nest is in the sheds on a fa~, the old back sheds where abandoned carriages have been backed in, and the farm machines: rakes and hay-cutters-stand waiting for the harvest. Here, on the inside beams, sometimes within reach from the ground, we often find a number of nests, all but one more or less dilapidated, and some mere relics of nests built long ago. Generally they rest on a beam, although rarely they may be stuck onto the wall. I remember one nest that was attached to a beam slanting at a 450 angle, one side built up twice as high as the other so that the top of the nest was level. Another common situation is on the porch of an abandoned farmhouse, over the door, perhaps, on the narrow wooden ledge. But even in inhabited houses phoebes sometimes build in a retired back piazza, and in a few cases the presence of people passing in and out all day has not driven them away. It is not uncommon, however, even at the present time, to find a nest placed in a niche on a rocky cliff far from any house.

A. Dawes DuBois (MS.) describes a typical nest as “composed of mud, dry grass, weed and grape-vine fibers; lined with finer fibers and hair; and covered outside with moss.” Of the moss, a constant component of phoebe’s nests, Dr. Samuel S. Dickey reports (MS.): “I have observed such species as Mnium stellaria, Funaria sp., Polytrichum sp., Hypnuim cristatum, and H. dendroides.” ï Knight (1908) states: “Nest building requires about thirteen days, though I have known exceptionally of a nest being built in seven days.” Bendire (1895) says that phoebes’ nests “vary considerably in shape as well as in the manner of construction. If attached to the side of an overhanging rock, it is necessarily semicircular, and mainly composed of mud pellets mixed with moss, a little grass, and occasionally a few feathers, somewhat resembling the nest of our well-known Barn Swallow. If placed on a flat beam, or rafter, or on top of a post, it is circular, and sometimes but little or no mud is used in its construction.” He gives the dimensions of a nest, built “underneath the roots of a partly overturned tree,” as “4Y2 inches in outer diameter by 4 inches in height, the inner cup being 2½ inches across by 13,4 inches in depth.”

Occasionally phoebes repair their nest for use during a second breeding period (Clinton G. Abbott, 1922), but often they build a new nest, making the change, doubtless, to avoid the parasites that usually overrun their nests. In rare cases they superimpose their second nest on the old one. Wilbur F. Smith (1905) tells of a nest five stories high, measuring 9 inches, and Richard C. Harlow (1912) reports: “Near Pine Grove [Pennsylvania] in an old ore furnace, a nest of Phoebe was found with six distinct stories.” Bendire (1S95) says: “Occasionally they build a new nest on the top of the old one, and this is sometimes done to get rid of Cowbirds’ eggs that may have been deposited by these intruders, but ordinarily they do not appear to object much to such additions, and care for them as faithfully as if they were their own.”

Frederick C. Lincoln (1926) records an instance in which man proved to be an unfavorable factor to a pair of breeding phoebes. IHe says:

The nest was located but five feet from an electric light that apparently was frequently burned to a late hour. * * * The electric light naturally attracted many night-flying moths, which the adult Phoebe would catch through. out the evening to feed her single offspring. This bird soon died and the second set of eggs was laid. All five of these were successfully hatched and the same procedure was again followed. The young were kept literally stuffed with moths, the parents frequently continuing feeding as late as midnight. All of these young died when they were about half fledged.

It is possible that the diet of moths alone may have been wholly or mainly responsible, but it seems more probable that the continuous feeding had the effect of upsetting the normal daily digestion, with fatal results.

Joseph Janiec (MS.) reports that in a nest he had under observation five eggs were deposited in five successive days.

Eggs: [AUTHOR’S NOTE: The eastern phoebe may lay anywhere from three to seven or even eight eggs, but five eggs form the usual set and the extremes are rare. The eggs are usually ovate, and they have very little or no gloss. The color is pure white, and usually all the eggs in the set are immaculate, but often one or more eggs in a set are sparingly marked, chiefly about the larger end, with small spots of dark or light brown. The measurements of 50 eggs average 19.0 by 14.7 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 20.6 by 14.7, 20.1 by 15.2, 16.5 by 14.2, and 17.0 by 13.2 millimeters.]

Young: Althea B. Sherman, who has given close study to the nesting of the phoebe, says in her notes: “Sixteen days is the average time of the incubation period.” She found in a series of 10 nests that the period averaged slightly longer in the first brood than in the second: 16% and 152/3 days, respectively. She continues: “The incubation periods of the phoebe vary more than do those of any other species that I have studied closely. Not only do the first nestings average a little longer incubation period: about one day: but the time the young stay in the nest is longer by one day than in the case of the second nesting. The female alone incubates.” Frank L. Burns (1921) gives the period of nestling life as 15 to 16 days. During this time both parents bring food to the young birds.

The nestling phoebe has no difficulty in leaving the nest when it is normally placed, but, as we have seen above, the nest may be built below the ground (in a well or shaft), under a bridge across a stream, or in an inclosure such as a room in a house, from which it is difficult for a fledgling to reach the open air. In such cases the little birds find themselves in a precarious situation; they may be forced to fly upward or to some distance to avoid a stretch of running water, or to direct their flight through a tiny opening. Nevertheless, they appear to extricate themselves generally without mishap, although they spend little more time in the nest than young wood pewees do that need only to walk out on the level branch by the nest or to flutter to a branch below.

Fledgling phoebes are pretty little birds, prettier when they leave the nest than they will ever be in their lives again. They are not dingy like their parents; their backs are pale olive, and their wings are crossed by two distinct buffy bars. They are alert and active even on the day they leave the nest and flit to a branch and perch without awkwardness, twitching their short tails ably with the downward sweep characteristic of the adults. They utter frequently a little peeping note: tereep or trree: feebler, longer and less sharply pronounced than the ekip of the old birds.

Dr. Dayton Stoner (1939a) made a detailed study of the development of young eastern phoebes and found the incubation period to be 16 days; the young, he says, reach “near-adult size within a period of 17 days.”

Plumages: [Aumon’s Nom: The natal down of the young phoebe is “mouse gray” or “light drab,” which only scantily covers the feather tracts. When the bird is four or five days of age the flight feathers begin to grow, followed soon by the contour plumage, with the natal down adhering to the tips of the juvenal feathers. The juvenal plumage resembles that of the adult, but the upper parts are browner, “clove brown” on the crown and nape and “olive-brown” on the back, wings, and tail; the feathers of the lower back, rump, and upper tail coverts are broadly tipped with “cinnamon-buff”; the greater and median wing coverts and the rectrices are tipped with “cinnamon-rufous,” and the secondaries and tertials are edged with yellowish white; the under parts are yellowish white, with brownish “olive-gray” on the sides of the throat and breast.

A partial postjuvenal molt begins about the middle of August, involving all but the primaries, secondaries, and rectrices and producing the first winter plumage, which is much like that of the fall adult. The young bird in this plumage is greener above and yellower below, “primrose yellow,” than in the juvenal plumage; the wing coverts are now narrowly edged with yellowish white. This plumage is apparently worn all through the winter and spring, with no change except by wear and fading.

The postnuptial molt of both young and old birds occurs in August and September, before the birds migrate, and is complete. Fall and winter birds are more olive above and yellower below, “primrose yellow,” than spring birds, and the light wing edgings are tinged with yellow; all these bright colors fade or wear away before spring. The sexes are alike in all plumages.]

Food: F. E. L. Beal (1912), in a comprehensive examination of 370 stomachs found the food of the phoebe “to consist of 89.23 per cent of animal matter to 10.77 of vegetable. The animal portion is composed of insects, with some spiders and myriapods, a gordius, and one bone of a tree frog. The vegetable part is made up of small fruits or berries, with a few seeds, all of them probably of wild species.” The more important results of Beal’s investigation are quoted below:

Useful beetles, consisting of tiger beetles (Cicindelidne), predaceous ground beetles (Carabidae), and ladybirds (Cocclnellidae), amount to 2.68 per cent. Other beetles, belonging to 21 families that were identified, make up 12.65 per cent. They appear to be eaten very regularly In every month, but the most are taken in spring and early summer. May is the month of maximum consumption with 23.67 per cent. Beetles altogether amount to 15.33 per cent, Which places them as second in rank of the items of animal food. The notorious cotton-boll weevil (Antlwnomu8 pran~Zi8) was found in 6 stomachs taken In the cotton fields of Texas and Louisiana * * * In the phoebe’s diet Hymenoptera stnnd at the head, as is the case with most of the flycatchers. They are eaten with great regularity and are the largest item in nearly every month. A few of them are the useful parasitic species, which are, however, offset by quite a number of sawfly larvae, which are very harmful insects. * ï * The maximum amount of Hymenoptera was taken In August, when they aggregated 39.66 per cent. They constituted the entire contents of 7 stomachs, and were found altogether in 225, which would seem to establish these insects as the favorite food of the phoebe. In bulk they amount to 26.69 per cent of the yearly diet.

Diptera aggregate 6.89 per cent, and are a very constant, though small element of the food. * * * Hemiptera (bugs) seem to be sought for rather more than flies, as they were found In 151 stomachs, but only one was entirely filled with them. Very curiously these were leaf hoppers (Jassidne), lively little creatures that live on grass and leaves and Jump like fleas. ï ï *

Orthoptera (grasshoppers and crickets) form 12.91 per cent of the phoebe’s tood. ï * * Lepidoptera (moths and caterpillars) are eaten much more regularly than grasshoppers, but not in such large quantities. They amount to 8.86 per cent of the food of the year. * * ï Spiders constitute quite a steady article of the phoebe’s diet. Ticks and miflepeds also are eaten. None of these creatures can be taken when they are on the wing, as they can not fly, but spiders may sometimes be picked up when they are sailing through the air upheld by their gossamer threads or they may he found on the top of a tall reed as the bird flies past. But ticks and millepeds must be taken from the ground or some other surface. The aggregate of these creatures for the year is 5.78 per cent. * * * The vegetable food of the phoebe may be placed in two categories, fruit and seeds. Fruit amounts to 4.99 per cent. * * * Of small wild berries 17 species were identified, besides a number of seeds, but nothing of any economic value was found. * * The great bulk of the vegetable food was taken in the fail, winter, and early spring months. ï * ï Among the stomachs examined were those of four newly hatched nestlings, which merit passing notice. The stomachs contained no vegetable matter whatever, but were completely filled with insects and spiders.

Professor Beal concludes his examination of the phoebe’s food with the following pleasant summary: “It seems hardly necessary to say anything in favor of a bird already firmly established in the affections of the people, but it may not be amiss to point out that this good will rests on a solid foundation of scientific truth. In the animal food of the phoebe there is such a small percentage of useful elements that they may be safely overlooked; while of the vegetable food it may be said that the products of husbandry are conspicuous by their absence. Let the phoebe remain just where it is. Let it occupy the orchard, the garden, the dooryard, and build its nest in the barn, the carriage house, or the shed. It pays ample rent for its accommodations.”

B. H. Belknap (1938) reports that phoebes were very active in destroying tent caterpillars in the moth stage during an infestation by these insects at Albany, N. Y. He says: “In view of the fact that the female moth is a little larger and somewhat more showy in flight than the male, the object of the chase was more than likely to be a female. In any event, the dozens of tent caterpillar moths devoured daily represented literally thousands of tent caterpillar eggs not laid.”

The phoebe captures most of its food while both bird and insect are on the wing, as we might infer from the preponderance of flying insects composing its diet. As we watch a bird fly out from its perch in pursuit of an insect: sometimes such a small one that we ourselves cannot see it: the phoebe impresses us with its lightness and agility in the air, although guiding itself with admirable precision. Its flight is a soft, butterfiylike fluttering, with abrupt, short turns: quick as a flash. We hear the click of the bill as it closes on the insect, sometimes high in the air, sometimes low down. ïWhen feeding over calm water, the bird almost meets its reflection: two birds that almost touch, then fly apart again without breaking the surface, or sometimes they do touch, leaving a little ripple.

We often find phoebes near water. We may meet a pair of them quietly flitting about a pond, keeping near together as they feed. One may toss itself high in the air toward an insect, floating in an upward dive, and then drift down again, its tail high, as if blown upward by the bird’s descent. All the motions are graceful and airy with little apparent force. Again, a bird may hover deftly before a branch, holding itself upright and stationary, balancing with waving wings, or one may make a wide sweep through the air and snap up a dragonfly, or stoop above a shrub and pluck off a berry in passing.

As we see the phoebe in the field, the dragonfly appears to be a more prominent article of food than Professor Beal’s examinations of stomachs indicate. Phoebes eat medium-sized dragonflies frequently and feed them to their young.

Behavior: The phoebe has lived so long and so familiarly in our farmyards that we have come to look on it, not as a wild bird, but as a member of the happy community that makes up rural life: the pigs in their sty, the hens in their coops, the horses and cows in the barn, and the phoebe in the back shed. Busy all day catching insects, unobtrusive, never noisy, it is popular with the farmers. They all know the phoebe as, over and over, it calls out its name. It is a pleasanter neighbor than the robin, for it does not burst into a distressing panic whenever you come near its nest. It has rather the nature of the chipping sparrow, another member of the family on a farm. Both birds have a quiet reserve combined with a capacity for hard work, not unlike the New England farmer himself.

Audubon (1840) held the phoebe in high esteem. He spent much time studying a pair of birds that bred in “a small cave scooped out of the solid rock by the hand of nature.” lie goes on: “Several days in succession I went to the spot, and saw with pleasure that as my visits increased in frequency, the birds became more familiarized to me, and, before a week had elapsed, the Pewees and myself were quite on terms of intimacy.” Audubon studied this pair throughout their first breeding period, and to prove true his supposition that the young birds returned to their birthplace, he became America’s first bird-bander. He continues: “When they were about to leave the nest, I fixed a light silver thread to the leg of each, loose enough not to hurt the part, but so fastened that no exertions of theirs could remove it. * * *

“At the season when the Pewee returns to Pennsylvania, I had the satisfaction to observe those of the cave in and about it. There again, in the very same nest, two broods were raised. I found several Pewees’ nests at some distance up the creek, particularly under a bridge, and several others in the adjoining meadows, attached to the inner part of sheds erected for the protection of hay and grain. Having caught several of these birds on the nest, I had the pleasure of finding that two of them had the little ring on the leg.”

The following two quotations illustrate the tameness of the phoebe, or at least its disregard for the presence of people. By such behavior, as well as by the choice of nesting sites, the bird shows an adaptability to man-made changes in its environment.

Clinton G. Abbott (1922) tells the story of a pair of phoebes that had built their nest on the veranda of his summer home before he and his family moved into it for the season on May 15. At this time the nest contained five eggs. The female bird was alarmed at first, but “within a week,” he says, “she had succeeded in completely readjusting herself to the new conditions. From her original shy and timid self, she was metamorphosed into quite a different type of bird, stolidly remaining seated upon her nest regardless of sudden noises or the movements of people. * * * Persons: even whole tea parties: were ignored, except that once or twice we thought we detected a tone of annoyance in the Phoebe’s voice upon finding a favorite chair occupied I” The following remarkable incident is related by H. H. Brimley (1934):

On November 27 I was on a deer stand in Onslow County, N. C. The air was rather warm for the time of year and mosquitoes were quite noticeably In evidence, though not particularly aggressive. I was in a standing position with my rifle under my arm, the barrel pointing downwrd, and I had my hands clasped in front. A faint fluttering of wings caused me to look down, and I saw a Phoebe (Se yorni~ phoebe), a bird frequently known by us as Winter Pewee, trying to alight on my rifle barrel. Failing to secure a firm grip on the smooth surface of the metal, the bird slid down the barrel until the front sight was reached, where it secured the grip desired, and there it perched.

It showed no sign of fear or nervousness and in a few seconds flew up and picked a mosquito off my hands, which were not more than a foot distant from its perch. Then, it picked others off the front of my coat, off my sleeeves, and several more off my hands, meanwhile perching indiscriminately on my hands, sleeves, and gun barrel, though seeming to prefer the last.

Finally, the Phoebe discovered that my face seemed to be attracting more mosquitoes than any other part of my person so he transferred his attention to that part of my anatomy, and found a new perching place on the top of my hunting cap.

In picking mosquitoes off my face, the sharp points of the bird’s bill were noticeably felt at every capture, and It was the Irritation caused by a succession of these pricks that finally caused me to dispense with Its attentions. * *

When I decided to end the. incident, I found a difficulty in doing so. I had presumed that any decided movement on my part would drive my Uttle friend away, but this bird was not of the scary kind. * * * He continued to perch on my head and pick mosquitoes off my face even after I had started to move around in an effort to discourage his attentions. But my face was beginning to feel somewhat inflamed from the frequent pecking to which it had been subjected, so I called it a day and told the Phoebe to stop pestering me.

Frederic H. Kennard says in his manuscript notes under date of March 31, 1908: “A phoebe flew through our open bedroom window this morning while we were at breakfast and made himself at home catching flies and perching on the back of the rocking chair.”

William Brewster (1936) describes thus the phoebe’s method of bathing:

June 17, 1905. About noon today I saw a Phoebe bathing in a small pond in the Berry Pasture. It flew from a dead branch about fifteen feet from the pond and eight feet above thu ground, striking the surface with its breast and with such force as to make a rather loud sound as well as to send heavy ripples rolling to my part of the pond. This action was repeated three times at short intervals.

There can be no question that the bird was bathing and not picking up floating insects, for each time it returned to Its perch I could see thut It was dripping wet. After freeing its plumage from most of the water by a vigorous shake or two, It wonid preen its feathers for a few moments and then take another dip.

Bendire (1895) says: “While generally of an amiable disposition toward other birds, often nesting in close proximity to the Barn Swallow, Robin, and Chimney Swift, it will not allow any of its own kind to occupy a site close to its own, fighting them persistently until driven off, and should one of the earlier arrivals presume to appropriate its old nest, war is at once declared.”

The most characteristic habit of the phoebe: .-one by which it may be recognized at a glance: is its manner of moving its tail. The bird no sooner alights than its tail begins to sway, first a downward sweep, then a recoil, which often carries the tail above the starting point. The swings are wide and are often made toward one side or the other, giving a wagging effect. The motions, repeated several times, are rather slow, not at all like the nervous twitchings of many birds’ tails.

Voice: The voice of the phoebe is distinctive as he sings, pronouncing phoebe, or better perhaps wkeep’y. There is in the voice an aspirate quality roughened a little by a rolling ‘r’ sound, very different from the voices of the other genera of flycatchers. There is none of the pure musical tone of the wood pewee, none of the rasp of the alder flycatcher, and no hint of the arrogant shout of the greatcrest. The phoebe’s song is uttered emphatically to be sure, and it is sharply accented at the start, but it is never loud: it is, in fact, only a forceful, whistled whisper. It may either rise or, more commonly, fall in pitch at the end, and the second syllable is often doubled: ‘wheeppi-pi: : a little vibratory quality running through it all. The first syllable, sweeping upward in pitch, receives the accent. The bird sings throughout the summer and well into the autumn.

Often in spring the phoebe gives his song from the air. EHe launches out from his perch repeating his chip note rapidly several times, and flies about in a seemingly distracted manner while he utters his song over and over, extending it sometimes with a long series of be-be-I) es. Dr. J. J. Murray (MS.) writes: “IL have several times heard what might be called the flight song of the phoebe, always late in March, at the time when nesting is just beginning. On one such cccasion the bird flew almost straight up into the air for about ~0 feet; then, with tail fully spread and wings fluttering, circled and dived, all the while uttering a series of quick, sharp whistled notes x esembling its ordinary call; and finally returned to a perch near where the flight began.”

Early in the morning before daylight, a time that some of the flycatchers devote to a special song heard only in the twilight, the phoebe redoubles his singing; song follows song with scarcely a pause between them, and when two or three are within hearing, a perfect chorus of singing ensues. Horace W. Wright (1912) says of the early morning singing: “The song is usually continued without much pause for an hour or more.”

Albert R. Brand (1938) finds that the approximate mean average pitch of the phoebe’s song is at the rate of 4,300 vibrations a second, about the same as the eastern meadowlark.

Of the minor notes, the commonest is a sharp, clearly cut chip, resembling a call note of the swamp sparrow. Francis H. Allen (MS.) says of it: “The ordinary chip note of the species is sometimes followed by a sort of echo on a lower pitch and purer in tone, as chip-pi. The pi is not nearly so loud and emphatic as the chip; it suggests a mechanical after-effect not deliberately sounded.” The (~hip note is used as a simple exclamation, or as a note of concern when we come near the nest.

I have also heard a quarrelsome tree-tree-tree-tree, given in a rapid series; a soft note, tree-oo, falling in pitch; and a rather musical whistled treet, sometimes doubled to sereet.

Olive Thorne Miller (1892) says: “Whenever a phoebe alighted on ihe fence he made a low but distinct remark that sounded marvelously like ‘cheese-it.'” Field marks: The phoebe is a flycatcher of midsize with a dark bill, practically no wing bars (except in juvenal plumage), and no eye ring. Olive Thorne Miller (1892) speaks of him as “the loneliest of its kind * * * whose big chuckle-head and high shoulders gave him the look of an old man, bent with age.”

Ralph Hoffmann (1904) says: ‘The fideway8 sweep of the tail is a characteristic action by which the bird may always be identified; in the old birds the absence of wing bars also serves to distinguish it from the Wood Pewee. Young birds have dull wing bars, but they cannot refrain long from making a suggestive movement of the loose-hung tail.”

Enemies: Perhaps the most serious of the phoebe’s enemies are the parasites that often infest the nests and debilitate or kill the young birds. Manley B. Townsend (1926) speaks of a nest “containing four newly hatched young.” “A week later,” he says, “on examining the nest, I found only the desiccated bodies of the young birds. The nest was swarming with parasitic insects.” Lewis 0. Shelley (1936a) adds his testimony on this subject: “The first nestings are invariably pretty free from parasitic pests, but second nestings may be literally overrun with mites and possible third broods will often be forced prematurely into leaving the nest. I am of the opinion that mites invariably prevent Phoebes from raising a third brood.”

Harold S. Peters (1933) found the mite Liponyseus sylviarl&rrb in the plumage of a phoebe sent to him by P. A. Stewart from Ohio.

Frederic H. Kennard (MS.) adds the raccoon to the phoebe’s enemies. He says: “May 2, 1925. A raccoon broke up our phoebe’s nest on the post of our woodshed last night. Eggs and nest lay several feet from the bottom of the post this morning. I had always supposed a screech owl was guilty in past years, but on making a close examination today, I found claw marks and a hair from a coon’s belly stuck to the bark of the post.”

William Brewster (1936) describes thus a dramatic incident in the life of a phoebe:

A male Pigeon Hawk suddenly appeared from we hardly knew whither and with the speed of an arrow glided on set wings, on a slightly declining plane, directly at the Phoebe.

That trustful little bird, swaying at ease on his slender perch, seemed so wholly unconscious of his fearful peril that we all thought him lost, but when the Falcon was within a foot of him he did the only thing that could possibly have saved him, viz, dropped like a ripe fruit nearly to the ground and then started directly for the barn cellar. The Hawk overshot him scarce more than four feet and, stopping and turning about with truly marvelous quickness, followed and overtook him before be had gone three yards but the Phoebe doubled short and abruptly and the little Falcon, apparently disgusted at his ill success, darted off down the hill-side towards the eastward, giving us a fine view of his ashy-blue back. Only a few minutes later the Phoebe was back on the same perch again. The whole episode was most impressive: happening as it did, at what might be called the very threshold of the Phoebe’s home and during a rarely beautiful and peaceful May afternoon.

George Nelson tells me that at his home in Lexington, Mass., house wrens sometimes interfere with the breeding of his phoebes by. flinging the newly hatched birds from the nest. The phoebe is “one of the very commonest foster parents of the young Cowbird. In regions where both species are common, fully 75 percent of the nests contain eggs of both kinds,” according to Friedmann (1929).

Fall: In the latitude of Boston, Mass., we see the phoebe well into October, the time when the killing frosts come. It is a characteristic bird of the late fall migration, when the sparrows are passing through and the hermit thrushes are arriving from the north. Marked by its usual quiet demeanor, we meet it along the sunny southern borders of woodlands and meadows. It is nearly silent: although on warm days it may sing even now: and almost always alone.

Manly Hardy (1885) tells of a phoebe lingering late in the season at Brewer, Maine. “On Nov. 23 (1884) ,” he says, “when the snow here was six inches deep, and the Penobseot River frozen over above the dam, a Phoebe came into my garden and remained a long time. As it was Sunday I did not shoot him, but there is no doubt as to his identity, for my daughter and I stood within a few feet of him and watched him catch insects over a smoking manure heap.”

Winter: Bent and Copeland (1927) found the phoebe “a common winter resident about villages and in hammocks” near St. Petersburg, Fla. I have met the bird many times on the east coast of Florida during February and March. At this season it is a silent bird, rarely singing, giving only its chip note occasionally. Bradford Torrey (1904), speaking of the vicinity of Miami, Fla., says: “Phoebes have sung much less of late than they did in January. Then they seemed to find existence a perpetual jubilee.”

Maurice Brooks writes to Mr. Bent: “Prof. E. R. Grose, State Teachers College, Glenville, W Va., reports that during the winter of 1930 a phoebe spent the winter on the college campus, feeding during the colder periods on the berries of Japanese ivy. This is, as far as I am aware, the only West Virginia winter record for the species.

There are, however, several records of phoebes wintering in more northern States, viz: F. Clement Scott (1934), in New Jersey, February 4 and 5, temperature 20~ “with about 8 inches of snow on the ground”; John H. Tompkins (1928) at Babylon, N. Y., on February 6; and Miss Carol Jones (1922) at Bennington, Vt., on February 1.

Milton P. Skinner (1928), speaking of the winter birds of the North Carolina sandhills, says: “During the winter these birds [phoebes] are almost always solitary, seldom even two birds being near each other. Nor are they seen with any other species.”

Range: North America east of the Rocky Mountains.

Breeding range: The eastern phoebe breeds north to southwestern Mackenzie (Old Wrigley, Lake St. Croix, and Hill Island Lake); northern Saskatchewan (Met.hye Portage and Sandfly Lake); Manitoba (probably Norway House and Gypsumville); southern Ontario (Indian Bay, Kenora, North Bay, Algonquin Park, and Suiphide); southern Quebec (Montreal, Hatley, and Mont Louis); Prince Edward Island (Charlottetown); and Nova Scotia (Sydney). The eastern boundary of the breeding range extends southward from this point along the coast to southeastern Virginia (Cobbs Island). South to southeastern Virginia (Cobbs Island and Richmond); North Carolina (Raleigh and Charlotte); northwestern South Carolina (Spartanburg and Seneca); northern Georgia (Atlanta); northern Alabama (Long Island and Florence); northern Mississippi (luka); Arkansas (Bertig, Magazine Mountain, and Rich Mountain); northeastern Oklahoma (Tulsa); and east-central New Mexico (Santa Rosa). West to east-central New Mexico (Santa Rosa); western Oklahoma (Kenton); Kansas (Stockton); eastern Nebraska (Red Cloud and Lincoln); eastern South Dakota (Yankton, Amour, and Dell Rapids); North Dakota (TBowman); Alberta (Morrin, Edmonton, and Battle River); and western Mackenzie (Fort Simpson, Two Island Indian Village, and Old Wrigley).

Winter range: The winter range extends north to central Chihuahua (Chihuahua City) ; northeastern Texas (Houston and Gainesville); probably rarely southeastern Oklahoma (Caddo); northern Alabama (Leighton); occasionally eastern Tennessee (Knoxville); western North Carolina (Asheville) ; and casually the District of Columbia (Washington). Note: In mild winters the phoebe has been detected north to northwestern Arkansas (Rogers); southern Illinois (Olney); southern Ohio (Cohunbus); southern Vermont (Bennington); and southern New Hampshire (Milford). The eastern boundary of the normal winter range extends southward along the Atlantic coast from the District of Columbia (Washington) to Florida (Daytona, Miami, and Royal Palm Hammock) and rarely Cuba (Habana and Guantanamo Bay). South to rarely Cuba (Guantanamo Bay) and Oaxaca (Tapanatepec). West to Oaxaca (Tapanatepec and Cuicatlan); Morelos (Morelos); Mexico (San Antonio Coapa) ; Nuevo Leon (Monterrey) ; and Chihuahua (Chihuahua City).

Spring migration:Early dates of spring arrival are: New Jersey: New Providence, March 8. New York: Ballston Spa, March 20. Connecticut: Hartford, March 13. Massachusetts: Beverly, March 12. Vermont: St. Johnsbury, March 22. Quebec: Montreal, April 10. New Brunswick: Scotch Lake, April 18. Missouri: St. Louis, March 3. Illinois: Chicago, March 12. Ohio: Oberlin, March 14. Michigan: Petersburg, March 10. Ontario: Strathroy, March 19. Kansas: Onaga, March 13. Jowa: Keokuk, March 12. Minnesota: Lanesboro, March 22. Alberta: Edmonton, April 19. Mackenzie: Fort Simpson, May 14.

Fall migration: Late dates of fall departure are: Alberta: Belvedere, September 7. Manitoba: Oak Lake, October 13. Minnesota: Minneapolis, November 3. Illinois-Chicago, November 10. Iowa: central part, October 28. Ontario-Point Pelee, October 18. OhioHillsboro, October 30; Toledo, November 15. Missouri: Concordia, October 30. Quebec: Montreal, October 8. New Brunswick: Scotch Lake, October 8. Massachusetts: Danvers, October 26. Rhode Island: Providence, October 27. Connecticut: Hartford, October 30. New Jersey: New Providence, November 5.

Casual records: There are four for the phoebe in Colorado as follows: A specimen taken at Fort Lyon on April 20, 1884; one collected in Pueblo County on April 5, 1896; another in the Clear Creek Valley, between Denver and Golden, on September 17, 1911; and the last near Denver, in Adams County, on April 26, 1933. Two specimens were collected at Paradise, Ariz., on October 8, 1918, and on August 16, 1919, while a third was taken at Blue Point on October 8, 1933. One was obtained a San Fernando, Calif., on February 14, 1901, and another at Moss Beach, near Pacific Grove, on March 7, 1913. Sight records have been reported from Pullman, Camas, and Yakima, Wash., but there appears to be no specimen collected in that State.

Egg dates: Alberta: 5 records, May 15 to June 3. Illinois: 28. records, April 1 to June 1~; 14 records, April 30 to May 26, indicating the height of the season. Massachusetts: 34 records, April 24 to June 20; 18 records, May 8 to June 13. Texas: 5 records, April 11 to May 12.Virginia: 6 records, April 27 to June 10.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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Monday 1st of May 2023

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