Photo Credit: Terry Hartley
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Sayornis phoebe
OTHER NAMES: Barn pewee, dusky fly catcher, pewit fly catcher, mosquero fibi
DESCRIPTION: The eastern phoebe is in the fly catcher family Tyrannidae. It is a medium size song bird 6-7 inches in length and weighs 0.5-0.75 ounces. The phoebe’s common name is derived from its song, a soft two note call “fee-ah-bee”. Sexes are alike in appearance. Coloration is composed of grayish brown upper parts with a contrasting white throat and lighter under parts. The flanks show a tint of pale yellowish wash. The eastern phoebe’s dark head, solid black bill, emphatic call, tail wagging and bobbing habit provide its best identification characteristics. Adults have no eye ring or wing barring. However, immature birds have buff colored wing barring.
The eastern phoebe was the first known bird species to be banded in North America. In the early 1800’s, John James Audubon tied a thin silver thread to the legs of a brood of eastern phoebes. Audubon noted that a member of the brood returned to the same area to breed over successive years.
DISTRIBUTION: The eastern phoebe over winters in the southeast from Texas to Florida and Central America. Summer breeding is from southeastern Yukon and northeastern British Columbia, eastward to Nova Scotia and southern Quebec, southward to Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and central Georgia. A year around resident in most southeastern states excluding costal areas.
HABITAT: The eastern phoebe prefers open woodland habitat, farmland, and backyards, often near water. Phoebes are not shy of humans and seem to be right at home around human civilization.
FEEDING HABITS: Phoebes are insectivorous and will establish perching and flight paths near open areas where insect life abounds. The phoebe will target both flying and ground insects. During colder winter weather when insect availability is scarce, the eastern phoebe will supplement its diet with fruits and berries.
LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: The eastern phoebe arrives on its breeding habitat by early April of each year. Nests are constructed on natural sites such as recesses along rock ledges and man made structures like girders under bridges, eves of houses and on rafters inside buildings. The open cup nest is constructed of mud which when dried adheres to the nest site. A lining of moss, grasses, hair and/or feathers completes the nest. The female lays a clutch of 3-8 white eggs shortly after nest construction. After a short incubation period of about 16 days, the young are born naked and helpless. Both parents feed and care for their young which fledge and leave the nest within two weeks, but continue to require parental care and guidance for sometime. Under good conditions two broods will usually be raised each year. The phoebe’s nest is often a host for the parasitic brown-headed cowbird.
The eastern phoebe is mostly a solitary loner shying away from other members until the breeding season. Its tolerance to humans and the use of man-made structures for nesting sites has been a positive adaptation for the phoebe.
AUTHOR: Rick Claybrook, Wildlife Biologist, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries
Terres, J.T. 1980. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Pages 358-371. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, New York, USA