The Say’s Phoebe is widely distributed in western North America, where it seeks nest sites under sheltering ledges, either natural or on human created structures. Migratory Say’s Phoebes often return to the same nest site year after year, though as in most songbirds their lifespans are only a few years.
Nest parasitism by Brown-headed Cowbirds is rare in Say’s Phoebes, although it is common in its eastern relative, the Eastern Phoebe. In one unusual instance, a Say’s Phoebe and a Barn Swallow shared the same nest, and each species fledged two chicks.
Length: 7 inches
Wing span: 13 inches
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Description of the Say’s Phoebe
The Say’s Phoebe is a small flycatcher with a grayish breast, pale orange belly, grayish upperparts, and a relatively long, black tail.
The sexes are similar.
Seasonal change in appearance
Juveniles have pale rufous wing bars.
Say’s Phoebes inhabit dry, semi-open country.
Say’s Phoebes eat insects.
Say’s Phoebes forage by observing for flying insects from an exposed perch, and then sallying out to capture them in flight.
Say’s Phoebes breed across much of the western U.S. and Canada. They winter in the southwestern U.S. and in Mexico. The population appears to be stable.
Say’s Phoebes cough up pellets of indigestible insect parts.
Bees and wasps are among the prey items of Say’s Phoebes.
Calls include a clear whistle, while the song consists of fast, two-whistle phrases.
- Female Vermilion Flycatchers have a white throat and breast.
The Say’s Phoebe’s nest is a cup of weeds, grass, moss, and other materials and is placed on a sheltered area of a rock outcrop, bridge, culvert, or building ledge.
Number: Usually lay 4 eggs.
Color: Whitish, sometimes with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 12-14 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 Say’s 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 Say’s Phoebe – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
SATORNIS SAYA SAYA (Bonaparte)HABITS
This large phoebe, clad in pleasing shades of gray and brown, sharply contrasted with its black tail, replaces throughout a large portion of western North America our familiar eastern phoebe, which it resembles in many of its haunts and habits. It is as much at home among the western ranches as our eastern bird is about our New England barnyards, equally fond of human company, and often building its nest on or about, or even in, the rancher’s buildings. It is a wide-ranging species, breeding as far north as central Alaska and as far south as northern Mexico. It is a summer resident only in the northern portion of its range, where it is one of the earliest arrivals in the spring, but it is found all winter in southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico.
Say’s phoebe is a bird of the open country, the prairie ranches, the sagebrush plains, the badlands, the dry, barren foothills, and the borders of the deserts, where it can forage widely over the stunted vegetation, or perch on some low bush or tall weed stalk to watch for its insect prey. But it is also found in the mouths of canyons or rocky ravines, perched on some commanding boulder as a watchtower. It has no special fondness for watercourses, or for rich agricultural lands, and is seldon~ seen in heavily timbered regions. As the deeply shaded retreats are more favored by the somber-hued black phoebe, so are the open, sunny places more suited to this sandy-colored species; perhaps each is less conspicuous in its normal habitat.
Nesting: I made my acquaintance with Say’s phoebe in southwestern Saskatchewan, where we located five pairs of these birds about the ranches in 1905 and 1906. A nest was found, on May SO, 1905, on a rafter under a bridge, but we could not reach it. Another nest was discovered on a shelf under the eaves of a station house; it held two fresh eggs on June 5. A nest examined on June 10, 1905, was built on a shelf under the roof of a cattle shed; there was a foundation of mud, on which was constructed a pretty nest of soft, fine grasses, lined with cow’s hair and woolly substances. Other nests were observed in Saskatchewan, and in 1922 in Arizona, all of which were placed on or in deserted ranch buildings. The above locations seem to furnish the favorite nesting sites for this phoebe, but it also nests in a variety of other situations.
Major Bendire (1895) says that at Fort Lapwai, Idaho, “they generally arrived during the third week in March, the males preceding the females about a week, and nest repairing or building commenced about the latter part of this month. I have taken a full set of eggs, containing small embryos, on April 17, 1871. Here they nested mostly under the eaves of outhouses and stables; but one pair selected the plate or rail over the main door of my quarters, and another a corner on the hospital porch. In this vicinity I also found a pair occupying an old Cliff Swallow’s nest attached to an overhanging ledge of rock in Soldiers’ Canyon, on the road to Lewiston, Idaho, and another in a very unusual position in the same canyon, in an old Robin’s nest, placed in a syringa bush, about 4 feet from the ground.” He says further:
Besides the various localities already mentioned in which Say’s Phoebe has been found nesting, burrows of Bank Swallows are also occasionally occupied. Ordinarily mud is not used in the construction of their nests; which are rather fiat structures; the base usnauy consists of weed stems, dry grasses, moss, plant fibers of different kinds, wool, empty cocoons, spider webs and hair, the inner lining being generally composed of wool and hair alone. A well-preserved nest, now before me, from the Crooked Falls of the Missonri, Montana, taken by Mr. B. S. Williams, June 3, 1889, measures 5Y2 Inches in outer diameter by 2’4 inches in height, the inner cup being 21A inches by 11/4 inches in depth. This is a Compactly built structure, the materials composing it being well worked together, and It is warmly lined with cattle hair.
Before the advent of man-made structures, the primitive nesting sites of Say’s phoebe were evidently on shelves or in crevices of rocky cliffs, protected from the weather by overhanging rock, on ledges in caves, in natural cavities in trees, or in holes in vertical or overhanging banks. Many pairs still nest in such situations, especially in uninhabited regions and in the far north. There is a set of eggs in my collection that was taken from a hole in a bank, well sheltered from rain, as the rim of the nest was flush with the face of the bank. But after the coming of lnan,it did not take the birds long to learn to take advantage of the new, and often more secure, nesting sites offered. Abandoned mine shafts and old wells took the place of caves. Harry S. Swarth (1929) says: “At our camp on the Ashburn Ranch [southern Arizonal a pair of Say Phoebes had a nest in a well, built in a crevice in the dirt wall about 15 feet down. This is a favorite nesting site with the species in this region and I have seen a number of nests similarly placed, in wells or in mine shafts.” R. T. Congdon has sent me a photograph of a nest located 15 feet under ground, at the bottom of the well-like shaft of an old irrigation flume, where an inverted siphon formerly carried water under a railroad track. Another of his photographs shows a nest in a lard pail inserted in the stovepipe hole of a chimney in a deserted forest cabin. While in Arizona, in 1922, Frank Willard photographed a nest in an old mail box on a post by a roadside.
As indicated above Say’s phoebe occasionally appropriates the nest of some other species, sometimes driving away the rightful owners. E. S. Cameron (1907) writes from Montana:
In May, 1595, a pair took possession of a Barn Swallow’s nest in the stable and forced the rightful owners, which were renovating it, to build an entirely new one affixed to a beam. In 1904, a pair of Say’s Phoebes nested below the eyrle of the Golden Eagles and were unmolested. Another pair which, in 1906, built in a hole near the Prairie Falcon’s eyrie (on one of the highest buttes along the Yellowstone) were kilied by the latter for their young. In May, 1907, a still more remarkable site chosen by these flycatchers was the old abode of a Oliff Swallow; one of several nests situated above a wolf-den in a huge sand rock. The den was inhabited by a she-wolf with her six pups, and the birds were exposed to constant disturbance, both from these animals and from men who suffocated the young wolves with a pitch pine fire. The she-wolf escaped with one ten-weeks-old pup and intermittent efforts were made to trap her at the den. Nevertheless the flycatchers did not desert their nest.”
Eggs: Say’s phoebe lays ordinarily four or five eggs, sometimes as few as three, and very rarely as many as six or seven. The eggs vary from ovate to short-ovate and have little or no gloss. They are usually pure white, but occasionally one or more eggs in a set may have a few small spots of reddish or dark brown. The measurements of 50 eggs average 19.5 by 15.1 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 21.6 by 15.5, 19.1 by 15.6 and 18.0 by 14.0 millimeters.
Young: Major Bendire (1895) says: “Incubation lasts about twelve days; the young are fed entirely on insects, mainly on small butterifies, which are abundant about that time, and they are ready to leave the nest in about two weeks, when the male takes charge of them, the female in the meantime getting ready for a second brood.” Apparently two broods are generally raised in a season throughout most of the range of Say’s phoebe, and in the southern portions often three. Mrs. Wheelock (1904) writes:
Incubation lasts two weeks, and although the male does not brood he sits all day long on a lookout near by. The newly hatched young are naked except for a slight gray fuzz on their saffron skin. Until six days old their eyes are closed by a skinny membrane, and during this time they are fed by regurgitation. They mature very rapidly, and In two weeks have their feathers well in order for their first attempts to fly. Up to this time the father bird has diligently fed and guarded both them and the mother, coming to the nest every two or three minutes with butterflies in his bill. But as soon as they are ready to try their wings, he assumes full charge, teaching them to fly and to catch Insects on the wing In true flycatcher fashion.
She says that, while incubating on the second set of eggs, the female is seldom fed by her mate, “but, since the days grow warmer, leaving oftener and for Longer intervals to forage for herself. When the second family is ready to fly, she takes charge of it unless the necessity of rearing a third brood should compel her to desert them; and then, from somewhere, the hitherto unnoticed male appears, to assume care of them.”
Plumages: I have seen no very young birds of this species, but the young bird in full juvenal plumage is essentially like the adult, except that the upper parts are browner, and the greater and median wing coverts are broadly tipped with “cinnamon~~ or “cinnamon-buff,” forming two distinct bands. The sexes are alike in all plumages.
Adults have a complete postnuptial molt during the latter part of July and in August; I have seen adults in full molt as early as July 27 and as late as September 2; and I have seen an adult male in full fresh plumage on August 31. I have seen a number of birds, taken m January, February, and March, in which the contour plumage about the head and neck is much worn; and others, taken in May, in wholly fresh plumage; this would seem to indicate a partial prenuptial molt; two specimens, taken on March 30 and May 17, show signs of body molt in progress. As adults and young are almost indistinguishable after the postjuvenal molt in fall, these may be young birds.
Food: Professor Beal (1912) reports on the contents of 11 stomachs of Say’s phoebe, taken during every month in the year. Animal food made up 99.78 percent and vegetable food 0.22 percent of the whole. Beetles of the three most useful families, Cicindelidae (tiger beetles), Carabidae (predaceous ground beetles), and Coccinellidae (ladybirds), amount to 5.95 percent of the food. “This,” he says, “is a surprisingly large percentage to be eaten by a flycatcher.” Other beetles, either harmful or neutral species, amount to 9.72 percent. Hymenoptera seem to be the largest item of food, 30.72 percent. “They are mostly bees and wasps, with a few ants. No honeybees were found.” Hemiptera (bugs) amount to only 4.45 percent, but Diptera (flies), “mostly of the families of the house fly, the crane fly and the robber fly,” are more popular, amounting to 16.67 percent. Caterpillars were found in 17 stomachs and moths in 19. “Here for t.he first time is found a flycatcher that eat.s more of adults (moths) than it does of the larvae (caterpillars).” Grasshoppers and crickets occurred in 48 stomachs and amount to 15.36 percent of the food. “Dragon flies, spiders, millepeds, and a few sowbugs, together amount to 4.79 percent of the food, and make up the remainder of the animal quota. * * * The vegetable food of Say’s phoebe can be dismissed with a few words. It consists of seeds of elder (Sambuou,s) contained in 3 stomachs, nightshade (Solanum) in 2, a single seed of a fig in 1, seeds of tarweed (Madia) in 1, and rubbish in 4. Thus it has no economic importance.”
Bendire (1895) says: “I have repeatedly seen it catching good-sized grasshoppers on the wing, as well as different species of beetles, flies, moths, and butterflies. It has a habit similar to the Owls of ejecting the indigestible portions of its food in the shape of pellets. My attention was drawn to this fact by observing several such lying on the porch of my quarters at Fort Lapwai, Idaho, where a pair of these birds nested over the door.”
Claude T. Barnes writes to xne about a Say’s phoebe that arrived in the foothills above Salt Lake City, Utah, on February 21, 1939, in the midst of a blizzard of great intensity: “For a week I observed it daily, pitying its fluffed loneliness, as it sat on limbs heavily laden with snow. At last in its hunger it came to a Boston ivy (Parthenockau8 tricuspidata), which a western robin had appropriated; and, thereafter, it would flutter, as occasion permitted, to the seeded berries of the ivy, only to be driven away forthwith by the equally doleful robin. During the time that I observed it, the phoebe never made any sound; and, on account of the almost constant snowfall, the ivy was apparently its sole subsistence.”
Behavior: Major Bendire (1895) writes:
Its general habits and actions resemble those of the eastern Phoebe; like it, it Is one of the earliest spring migrants to return from its winter haunts, and it is equally attached to its old home, to which it regularly returns from year to year. It appears to be much more tolerant in its disposition toward other members of its kind than the Phoebe, as I have found several pairs breeding within 100 yards of each other apparently in perfect harmony. Its manner of flight is also similar. * I consider it a more restless bird than the Phoebe, if that is possible; for it is never idle, but constantly darting back and forth from its perch after passing insects, which form the bulk of its food and of which it never seems to get enough.
In its favorite haunts in the fiat, open spaces, Say’s phoebe flits about over the stunted vegetation with rather powerful wing strokes in its somewhat zigzag flight. It does not ordinarily fly high and favors rather low perches, on some small bush, tall weed stalk, or low rock, seldom higher than a fencepost. Thence it sallies forth to seize its flying prey with a loud click of its bill, or to pick up some lowly insect from the ground, and returns to its perch with a flick of its black tail. It is not at all shy and shows its confidence in the human race by living about the ranches and placing its nest on occupied dwellings.
Labrence M. Huey (1927) discovered an interesting night-roosting habit of this phoebe:
Camp was established near an old adobe ruin, where, after a few days, a Say’s Phoebe was noticed early in the morning and again at sunset, with precise regularity. This occasioned some speculation, and not until it was discovered that the bird had a chosen roosting site nearby, were its actions explained. * S * On the evening when the phoebe’s secret was discovered, an inspection tour was made about 10:30. * * S Before entering the doorless doorway of the old building, a glance upward revealed, almost directly over the doorway, an old nest of a Black Phoebe and protruding from the edge of the nest was a bird’s tail. A closer look showed the preemptor to be none other than the regular.twice~daily occurring Say’s Phoebe. Blinded by the light, the bird did not flush, but tried to crouch more closely into the cup of the nest.
Every night thereafter the phoebe was looked for and always found. On two occasions, when the weather had turned decidedly cooler, the bird resorted to a niche in the wall a few inches above the nest; otherwise it was always in its favorite spot.
Voice: The ordinary call note of Say’s phoebe is quite unlike the note of the eastern phoebe; it is a soft, plaintive pliee-eur, rather sweet but somewhat melancholy in tone; it is often accompanied by a twitching of the tail and a raising of the crest. Ralph Hoffmann (1927) says: “The Say Phoebe in the mating season utters repeatedly a swift pzt-t8ee-ar, finally fluttering about in the air repeating a rough trilling note. Even in the winter this mating song is occasionally heard.”
Field marks: Its flycatcher behavior, its grayish-brown back, and its reddish-brown belly, together with its conspicuous black tail, make this phoebe easily recognizable. Its flight, as referred to above, is characteristic.
Range: Western North America, including northwestern Mexico; accidental east of the Great Plains.
Breeding range: Say’s phoebe breeds north to central Alaska (White Mountains and Circle) ; western Mackenzie (Fort McPherson, Fort Simpson, and Hay River); southern Saskatchewan (Johnstone Lake, Regina, and Indian Head); and southern Manitoba (probably Oak Lake, and Aweme). East to southwestern Manitoba (Aweme); North Dakota (Charison and Stutsman County) ; South Dakota (Tuttle and possibly Vermillion); Nebraska (Valentine, Greeley, and Lincoln); western Kansas (Gove and Coolidge); western Oklahoma (Kenton); southeastern New Mexico (Carlsbad); and Chihuahua (Rio Sestin). South to southern Chihuahua (Rio Sestin) and central Baja California (San Bartolome). West to Baja California (San Bartolome, Valladareo, and Sierra San Pedro Martir); California (Escondido, Ventura, Pleasant Valley, and Red Bluff) ; eastern Oregon (Warner Valley, Malbeur Lake, and Brogan); eastern Washington (Grand Dalles, Yakima, and Cheney); British Columbia (Chihiwack, Clinton, Glenora, and Atlin); southwestern Yukon (Fort Selkirk); and central Alaska (White Mountains).
Winter range: The winter range extends north to central California (Berkeley, Fresno, and Death Valley); central Arizona (Salt River Reservation); and central New Mexico (Albuquerque). East to New Mexico (Albuquerque, San Acacia, and Carlsbad); central Texas (San Angelo, Laredo, and Brownsville); Tamaulipas (Matamoros); and Veracruz (Jalapa and Orizaba). South to southern Veracruz (Orizaba); Puebla (Puebla and Chapulco); Durango (Lerdo); and southern Baja California (San Jose del Cabo). West to Baja California (San Jose del Cabo, La Paz, Cerros Island, and Todos Santos Island) and the coastal region of southern California (San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Berkeley).
The range as outlined is for the entire species, of which two subspecies are currently recognized. The typical race, &ryornis .saya 8aya, occupies the entire range except for Baja California, which is the general range of the San Jose phoebe, S. s. quiescens.
Spring migration: Early dates of spring arrival are: Oklahoma: Kenton, March 20. Kansas: Ellis, March 18. Nebraska: Antioch, March 29. South Dakota: Lacreek, April 4. North Dakota: Bismarek, April 10. Manitoba: Treesbank, April 6. Saskatchewan: Eastend, April 22. Colorado: Boulder, March 27. Wyoming: Cheyenne, April 7. Montana: Terry, April 5. Utab: Linwood, April 15. Alberta: Edmonton, April 22. Mackenzie: Fort Simpson, May 4. Eastern Oregon: Enterprise, February 28. Eastern Washington: Grand Dalles, February 12. British Columbia: West Summerland, February 25. Yukon: Fortymile, May 5. Alaska: Mount McKinley, June 5.
Fall migration: L ate dates of fall departure are: Alaska: McCarthy, August 21. Yukon: Fort Selkirk, August 13. British Calumbia: Okanagan Landing, November 7. Washington: College Place, September 30. Oregon: Fort Klamath, September 20. Alberta: Glenevis, September 19. Montana: Fortine, September 8. Wyoming: Laramie, October 3. Utah: St. George, October 26. Colorado: Grand Junction, October 4. Saskatchewan: Eastend, September 19. North Dakota: Charison, September 24. South Dakota: Great Bend, September 18. Nebraska: Ashby, October 3. Oklahoma: Black Mesa country, Cimarron County, October 1.
Casual records: On several occasions Say’s phoebe has been recorded east of its normal range, although several of the alleged occurrences are without complete data. One was collected at Stotesbury, Mo., sometime previous to 1907; two specimens are said to have been collected by Robert Kennicott, at West Northfield, Ill., previous to 1876; according to Kumlein and Hollister one was taken at Racine, Wis.; a specimen was taken at or near Godbout, Quebec, on October 19, 1895; and one was collected at North Truro, Mass., on September 30, 1889. In the north, a specimen was obtained at Point Barrow. Alaska, on May 27, 1932.
Egg dates: California: 44 records, March 7 to June 16; 22 records, April 1 to May 6, indicating the height of the season.
Colorado: 16 records, May 7 to June 26; 8 records, May 20 to June 16.
Idaho: 6 records, April 14 to June 30.
New Mexico: 12 records, April 4 to July 14; 6 records, April 27 to June 1.
North Dakota: 8 records, May 31 to July 9.
SAN JOSE PHOEBE
SAYORNIS SAYA QUIESCENS Grinnell
Dr. Joseph Grinnell (1926) described this race of Say’s phoebe as similar to the well-known northern form, “but tone of coloration paler, this paleness being in the direction of ashy gray rather than light brown.” The seven specimens on which this name is based all came from a very limited “area in northwestern Lower California on the Pacific drainage from the Sierra Pedro Martir west to the seacoast. Life-zone chiefly Upper Sonoran.” All the localities, where the specimens were collected, “lie between latitudes 30030P and 31~3O’.” As all the specimens are in full fresh annual plumage,” the paleness is not due to wear or fading.
I can find no evidence that this phoebe differs in any respect in its habits from its more northern relative. It evidently breeds in the area indicated above, for A. W. Anthony told Major Bendire (1895) that he found nests of this phoebe in that region in abandoned mining shafts and prospect holes, as much as 25 feet below the surface of the ground. How much farther south, east, or north it breeds does not seem to be known. No form of Say’s phoebe has been found breeding in the Cape region of Lower California, where the species seems to be only a winter visitor and rather rare at that.
The subspecific status of the birds of this species that have been taken in winter in the Cape San Lucas region evidently has not been determined.
Dr. Louis B. Bishop (1900a) described a northern race of this species, which he named Sayornis saga gukonensis, based on the study of 15 specimens collected in the Yukon Valley, Alaska. He characterized it as “similar to Saycn’nis saga but darker, the gray of the upper parts clearer: less scorched, with the pale edgings of the wing-coverts and secondaries narrower; the tail longer; the bill shorter and relatively broader.” Mr. Ridgway (1907) relegated it to synonymy; and the A. 0. U. Check-list has not yet admitted it.
The measurements of eight eggs average 20.4 by 15.5 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 224 by 16.3 and 19.0 by 15.3 millimeters.