Bird Lore: Say’s Phoebe

Say’s Phoebe is a flycatcher of the western U.S. It favors high deserts and arid lands. Spring migration brings Say’s Phoebe to Eastern Washington where it breeds. In recent years there have been increasing numbers of this flycatcher seen in Western Washington during spring and fall migration. In the last 10 years there have been six sightings in Edmonds, two of those in the last month on Ocean Avenue and at the marsh. There have been a least an additional three birds seen in the last month in other parts of Snohomish County.

Say’s Phoebe habitat includes scrub, dry farms and ranches, and canyons. It favors open and semi-open country, avoiding forests. In the northern part of its range, it can be found in dry upland tundra. Its breeding range includes Northern Canada and Alaska.

Insects make up most of the diet of Say’s Phoebe. It often forages for wild bees, wasps and winged ants. Other insects in its diet include grasshoppers, moths, beetles, crickets, dragonflies, spiders, and millipedes. It occasionally eats berries. Its typical foraging strategy is to perch on a rock, fence post, or low shrub and dart out to capture insects. It will also hover low until it spots prey and then drops to the ground to capture it, as seen in the second photo. It coughs up indigestible parts of insects as pellets. This flycatcher does not come to feeders but it will forage for prey in suitable yards.

Males are thought to arrive on their breeding grounds before the females. The male sings from an exposed perch to defend its nesting territory. A breeding pair will investigate potential nest sites together. They look for a protected ledge or pocket in caves, cliff faces, dirt banks, bridges, barns and other buildings. Nest height varies depending on the height of the host structure. The most important feature the pair seeks is shelter from above.

The female will build her nest on a natural or human-made ledge. She uses rocks, sage, wood, plant stems, and grasses to form the base of the nest, bound together with spider webs. The nest is lined with wool, hair, paper, or feathers. The female incubates her three to six eggs for 12-14 days. Both adults bring food to the nestlings, which are ready to leave the nest after 14-16 days. This flycatcher has one to two broods per years, sometimes three broods in the southern part of its range.

A nephew of Napoleon, Charles Bonaparte, named the Say’s Phoebe after American naturalist Thomas Say, the first scientist to encounter the bird in Colorado in 1819. This flycatcher has resided in what is now the U.S. for longer than has the human species. Paleontologists have found Say’s Phoebe fossils in the Southwest that date back 400,000 years (the late Pleistocene). A group of any flycatchers has many collective nouns, including outfield, swatting, zapper, and zipper.

Say’s Phoebe is common throughout arid regions of the West. Between 1968 and 2015, there was a small increase in its population, which is estimated at 4 million birds. About 85 percent spend at least part of the year in the U.S., 62 percent in Mexico, and about 6 percent breed in Canada. This species has a conservation rating of low concern. It is thought that an increase in human structures in arid areas benefits the Say’s Phoebe because buildings may provide more places for nests.

You can hear the call of a Say’s Phoebe here:

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

2 Replies to “Bird Lore: Say’s Phoebe”

  1. Does the “Says” have white “pin feathers” in it’s tail and dark feathers on it’s head???? If so, I have a pair now “nesting” in the gutter of my house!

    I assume this is the male with female (all brown) preparing a nest in the gutter on my house. The “male” pecks at the window below the “perceived” nesting going on in the gutter!


  2. I’m not sure what bird species you are describing, but it is not the Say’s Phoebe. This flycatcher does not breed in Western Washington and the male and female look alike. That is why I have labeled my photos as just “Say’s Phoebe.”


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