Though the eastern phoebe is common and widespread throughout eastern North America, it has relatively drab plumage and is often overlooked. A familiar member of the Tyrannidae bird family, this is a bird well worth getting to know, however, since its distinctive song makes it easy for birders to properly identify. Learning the basic eastern phoebe facts can help any birder feel more comfortable with these flycatchers.
- Scientific Name: Sayornis phoebe
- Common Name: Eastern Phoebe
- Lifespan: 5-7 years
- Size: 5.5-7 inches
- Weight: .65-.7 ounces
- Wingspan: 11-12 inches
- Conservation Status: Least concern
Eastern Phoebe Identification
The eastern phoebe first appears to be an unremarkable bird, rather dull and without bold markings or color. Its slender build and large head that may appear peaked at the rear are a birder's first clues about this bird's identity. The black, thin bill has stiff rictal bristles at the base, and these birds have dark eyes and black legs and feet. Males and females are similar with a sooty brown or gray-black head and face, and the upperparts are slightly paler gray-brown. The underparts are whitish with a faint yellow wash on the abdomen and undertail coverts, particularly in the fall, though they may appear plain white in the spring. A faint gray-brown "vest" is visible at the sides of the upper breast, and the throat is plain white. The wings may show some pale edges, but not quite enough to be characterized as wing bars. The tail is dark with a square tip.
Juveniles are similar to adults but show more yellow below and have slightly paler wings that may give a stronger hint of wing bars. As the young birds mature, however, they will appear even more drab and relatively featureless.
These birds may have bland plumage and lack easy-to-identify markings, but their bold FEEE-beee song is a distinctive raspy whistle with emphasis on the first syllable. The typical call is a sharp "chip" sound, and some raspy chattering are also part of the eastern phoebe's repertoire. These birds typically sing from a high, exposed perch, and they are an easily recognizable part of the dawn chorus each spring.
Eastern Phoebe Habitat and Distribution
These flycatchers prefer open deciduous woodlands as well as agricultural areas and wooded riparian corridors. In suburban areas, they are often found in parks or cemeteries. They are found throughout the eastern and southern United States, southern Canada, and even into the Caribbean, depending on the season.
Eastern phoebes stay in appropriate habitats year-round from central and eastern Texas through Arkansas and the northern portions of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia into Tennessee, southern Kentucky, western North Carolina, and northern South Carolina. During the summer breeding season, these birds spread much further north, ranging into the boreal forest of southern Canada and as far north as suitable habitat in the southern Northwest Territories. In the United States, eastern phoebes breed as far west as North Dakota, and in the east, they are found throughout New England and into Maine. In winter, these phoebes migrate to central and eastern Mexico as well as the southeastern United States and throughout Florida. A few birds may also spend winter in the Caribbean.
Vagrant sightings are regularly recorded much further west than expected, usually in fall. One eastern phoebe has also been recorded in England, presumably after getting lost on migration.
These are relatively solitary birds but are also seen in pairs, though even mated birds do not have much tolerance for one another's company. When they perch, they wag, pump, or bob their tails distinctively, often spreading the tail slightly. They can raise their head feathers, giving the appearance of a short crest with a peak at the rear of the head.
Eastern phoebes are one of the earliest spring migrants and may even arrive in breeding areas before winter is fully finished. These birds were the first to be banded in North America when John James Audubon tied silver wire around the legs of eastern phoebes, and discovered that these birds return to the same nesting sites each year.
Diet and Feeding
These birds are primarily insectivorous and eat a wide range of bugs, including larvae and spiders. They also include fruit, berries, and even small fish in their diet, depending on what food sources are most abundant in an individual bird's territory.
When foraging, eastern phoebes often sally from the same perch repeatedly, and can hover briefly while they pluck at insects.
These birds are monogamous. The nest is built of mud pellets and moss, lined with grass, feathers, leaves, and similar material. Nests are typically low, attached to a vertical surface such as walls, stream banks, or rocky cliffs, and may even be built on top of old nests. Eastern phoebes often nest under bridges, overpasses, eaves, or culverts, and are comfortable nesting in close proximity to humans.
Eggs and Young
The oval-shaped eggs are white and are occasionally spotted with red-brown flecks. There are 2-8 eggs in a typical brood, and a mated pair may raise 2-3 broods each year. A third brood is usually only common in southernmost populations where the breeding season is longest. After the eggs are laid, the female parent incubates them for 15-17 days, and after the chicks hatch, both parents feed the nestlings for an additional 15-16 days.
Eastern phoebes occasionally hybridize with black phoebes, and they are also subject to brood parasitism from brown-headed cowbirds.
Eastern Phoebe Conservation
These flycatchers are not considered threatened or endangered, and thanks to more available bridges and overpasses to serve as nesting sites, their range is gradually expanding. Minimizing pesticide use and avoiding disturbing nests are good steps to help these birds continue to thrive.
Tips for Backyard Birders
Minimizing insecticide use will ensure a healthy, abundant food source for eastern phoebes that may visit a yard, and they are often welcome in gardens because they provide great bug control. Planting berry bushes will help provide winter food, and including shrubs in a bird-friendly yard will provide good perches to attract eastern phoebes. These birds will also use nesting shelves that are placed under eaves in suitable nesting locations.
How to Find This Bird
While eastern phoebes are common and widespread in their range, they are often overlooked or misidentified because they are so visually unremarkable. Learning to identify birds by ear is a good step for birders to locate and confidently identify these birds when visiting the proper habitat. Birding in areas with abundant culverts, overpasses, and other nesting options is also a way to increase the chances of seeing an eastern phoebe.
Explore More Birds in This Family
The Tyrannidae bird family includes approximately 450 species of phoebes, flycatchers, tyrannulets, elaenias, kiskadees, kingbirds, pewees, and other birds. Some of the closest relatives to the eastern phoebe include:
Don't forget to visit all our wild bird profiles to find more fact sheets about all your favorite birds, including ducks, hummingbirds, flamingos, raptors, and more!