BLACK PHOEBE  Sayornis nigricans

Photo by Don Garver

Sayornis nigricans

The Black Phoebe has an almost obligatory attachment to water because its nest is made primarily of mud. Thus its distribution is highly irregular and difficult to sample by usual census techniques. The breeding bird atlas technique is especially valuable for species like Black Phoebe. Atlasers are aware some species are restricted to water  and surrounding areas and atlasers can give them special attention.

Black Phoebes are often seen sallying out over water to catch flying insects or to pluck insects from the surface of the water or small fish from just below the surface (Wolf 1997).

DISTRIBUTION. During the 1987-1992  TBBA project field work, surveyors found breeding evidence for Black Phoebe unevenly distributed through the Trans-Pecos and Edwards Plateau regions and the north edge of South Texas Brush Country. Its distribution is probably determined by the presence of water and mud for nests.  The species is a year-round resident except at highest elevation from which it may move downslope in winter (Wolf 1997, Lockwood and Freeman 2004).

Outside Texas Black Phoebe breeds along the Pacific Coast  from extreme southwest Oregon to northern Baja California (Mexico). Another group breeds in Baja California Sur with a larger population breeding from extreme southwest Utah and southeast Nevada through much of Arizona and New Mexico, and the highlands of Mexico south to Honduras. The status of Black Phoebe in Nicaragua is unclear, but the species breeds in Costa Rica, Panama and the Andes of South America to Bolivia and northwest Argentina. In winter some Black Phoebes at high elevations move downslope (Wolf 1997).

SEASONAL OCCURRENCE. Lockwood and Freeman (2004) describe Black Phoebe as a resident in its breeding range with vagrants in other areas of the state being rare to casual. These vagrants may be mostly young birds dispersing from their natal site. Lockwood and Freeman (2004) also mention downslope movements to lower elevations in winter.

Black Phoebes breed from late February to early July with eggs taken from March 30 to May 9 and young found in nests as late as  June 28 (Oberholser 1974). Ohlendorf (1976) reported a breeding season of April 10 to August 10.

BREEDING HABITAT. Black Phoebes in Texas breed from 300 to 2100 m (1000 to 7000 ft) above sea level (Oberholser 1974). The nest is  always found near a source of mud  (Ohlendorf 1976). The nest shell is made of mud reinforced with plant stems or hair, and often plastered to a vertical surface, either natural or man-made, sometimes sheltered by an overhang. One nest was found in a shed containing a large diesel generator which ran continuously (RCT).

The nest is lined with animal hair, grasses, fine roots, bark strips, and plant fibers. The outside diameter is 13 cm (5 in), height 9 cm (3.5 in),  inside diameter 7 cm (2.8 in), cup depth  3 cm (1.2 in). The same nest or nest site is often reused year after year.

The female usually lays 3-4 smooth, non-glossy white eggs which she incubates for  15-17 days. The eggs are indistinguishable from those of other phoebes. Young birds usually leave the nest between 18 and 21 days after hatching. Parasitism by cowbirds has not been reported. A pair may raise 1 or 2 broods per season. Reproductive success is high for a passerina species, 15 of 21 nests produced at least 1 fledgling (Ohlendorf 1976, Harrison 197, Wolf 1997).

STATUS. Lockwood and Freeman (2004) describe Black Phoebe as a locally uncommon to rare resident in its range in Texas. The TBBA map shows Black Phoebes breeding in the same area described as their range by Oberholser (1974).

Data from the five 40 km (25 mi) North American Breeding Bird Survey routes in Texas on which this species was detected indicate that less than 1 phoebe was usually detected per route per year. No useful trend estimate was obtained from this data. The 161 routes on which Black Phoebe was detected across the southwest United States produced a statistically significant trend of +2.0% population change per year for the period 1966-2004 (Sauer 2005). The nationwide trend, although based mostly on data from California, suggests birdwatchers may continue to enjoying Black Phoebes in Texas.

Text by Robert C. Tweit (2005)

Texas Breeding Bird Atlas map

Literature cited.

Harrison, H. H. 1979. A field guide to western birds’ nests. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA.

Lockwood, M. W. and B. Freeman. 2004. The TOS handbook of Texas birds. Texas A&M University Press, College Station.

Oberholser, H. C. 1974. The bird life of Texas. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Ohlendorf, H. M. 1976. Comparative breeding ecology of phoebes i Trans-Pecos Texas. Wilson Bull. 88: 255-271.

Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, and J. Fallon. 2005. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, results and analysis 1966-2004. Version 2005.1. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel MD (Web site,

Wolf, B. O. 1997. Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans). In The birds of North America, No. 268 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.

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