Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)

Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)

The Eastern Phoebe is a bird of order Passeriformes, genus Sayornis and species phoebe. It is in the Tyrant Flycatchers (Tyrannidae) family.1 The genus name is a combination of Say's Phoebe, the common name for another similar phoebe, and the Greek for bird, ornis"3  The common name, phoebe, derives from the Greco-Roman god of the sun and poetry but was adopted from the call of this bird that sounds like "fee-bee."3,4 This bird is exceptionally tame and was one of the first species to be banded by John James Audubon (nee Jean Rabin). The Eastern Phoebe winters east of the Rocky Mountains in the northern part of the United States, the Canadian Rockies and southern Canada. It winters east of the Rockies  in Virginia south to Mexico. A pair will return to exactly the same nesting site each spring1. One pair has established its nesting site on a laundry-dryer exhaust-pipe under the eve of a house just east of French Hill Pond. See the photograph below. Unfortunately, this site is also over a deck that is quickly covered with bird droppings in the spring each year.

This bird is about seven inches (17 centimeters) long, gray to brown above with a white to grayish breast. It lacks an eye ring. The Eastern Phoebe is distinguished from other flycatchers by the lack of distinct wing bars and its darker beak. In the fall, the lower breast will have a yellow tinge. Another distinguishing characteristic is that it wags its tail. The following photograph shows an Eastern Phoebe in the light of dusk. Note that the upper plumage appears browner and the breast has some gray and yellow that would not be as apparent in the light of midday. This bird has also ruffled its feather atop its head to form a crest.1,2,3

Eastern Phoebe with Crest

The Eastern Phoebe prefers open woodlands where it can find a ledge on which to build its nest. The nest is constructed of grass held together with mud and lined with moss, loose grass and hair. The female Eastern Phoebe will lay two to six white eggs twice a year. It primarily feeds on insects but will consume berries. Both male and female Eastern Phoebes will feed the young.1.2.3

Eastern Phoebe Nest

Occasionally, an Eastern Phoebe nest will be commandeered by a Brown-headed Cowbird for breeding purposes. The Cowbird will lay its eggs in the Eastern Phoebe's nest and allow the Eastern Phoebe to raise the Cowbird's young.3


1. Bull, John and John Farrand, Jr., The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Eastern Region, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1986.

2. Eastern Phoebe, retrieved from "https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Phoebe/id", The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, June 6, 2017.

3. Eastern Phoebe, retrieved from "https://en wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Eastern_phoebe&oldid=762620806", June 13, 2017.

4. Gove, Philip Babcock, Ph.D.,Webster's Third International Dictionary, G. &C. Merriam Company, Springfield, Massachusetts, U.S.A., 1971.


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