EASTERN PHOEBE Sayornis pheobe

Image by Robert Benson

Sayornis pheobe

The Eastern Phoebe is a fairly common breeding flycatcher in the eastern half of North America. In addition, it winters in the southeastern United States (as far west as the 103rd meridian) and in Mexico. Thus, in parts of Texas, the Eastern Phoebe is both a wintering bird as well as a breeding one. This phenomenon allows many birders in Texas the opportunity to observe this species year-round and to become familiar with its distinctive “fi-bee” call and tail-wagging habit.

However, this year-round residency can complicate interpretation of possible and probable evidence. Needless to say, atlasers had to be cautious in assigning “breeding status” to a phoebe present in March or April in an area where the bird is known to winter. In Texas, the winter range completely overlaps the breeding range. The winter range furthermore extends south to the coast and Rio Grande Valley.  No confirmed breeding records occurred during the TBBAP years in the coastal plain areas. The few records in these areas were based on PO (possible) evidence, and the dates of these records suggest that the phoebes may have been wintering or migrating. However, two solid records did occur in the Rio Grande Valley:  a fledgling phoebe was observed in riparian woodlands (not coastal plain) on 1 June 1992 (H. Burgess, pers.comm.) and a pair of phoebes were reported from latilong 26098 on 1 May 1991.  The situation is further complicated by the fact that the breeding season for Eastern Phoebe extends from mid-February to late July, while the wintering months are October through April, sometimes even into May (Oberholser 1974). Obviously, confirmation of breeding was desirable for this species if an atlaser detected the bird during the spring months.

DISTRIBUTION: In Texas, the TBBAP data indicated that this bird breeds almost exclusively in the north central plains, northeastern farmlands, and the Edwards Plateau. The one record in the Trans-Pecos and several in the Panhandle are associated with the mesic canyons and draws of these areas. Eastern Phoebe has to be considered a rare and extremely local breeding bird in the Panhandle and in the western portions of the state.

SEASONAL OCCURRENCE: The Eastern Phoebe is an easy species to confirm, once its presence during the breeding season has been established. Of the 428 records obtained by the TBBAP, 41% were confirmed records. Over half of these confirmations resulted from the discovery of active nests with eggs or young.

The breeding season for this species is long, extending from mid-February to late July (Oberholser 1974). Oberholser notes that the early and late dates for eggs are March 17th and June 27th , respectively. The TBBAP data document both earlier and later egg dates: on 15 March 1987, a nest with eggs was recorded for latilong 33097, quad D4; and on 1 July 1990, eggs were reported for the nest in the Panhandle at latilong 34101, quad H4.

BREEDING HABITAT: In Texas, the Eastern Phoebe’s nest is usually under a bridge or culvert. It may also be occasionally associated with farms or buildings. In the Edwards Plateau, limestone cliffs and outcroppings are frequently used. The one confirmed nest in the Panhandle was “in a crevice at the head of Dripping Springs Canyon under a massively overhanging ledge” (T. Johnson, pers. comm.). The cup-shaped nests are of mud, mixed with dry grasses and moss, and are almost always near water. The nests may be either upright on a flat surface (statant nests), or attached to a more or less vertical surface (adherent nests). In other atlas projects, double-brooding phoebes have been found to reuse the same nest (Brewer et al. 1991). Although reuse of the same or a previous season’s nest was not reported for Texas, it has been reported elsewhere (Cuthbert 1962, Coffey 1963).

STATUS: The status of the Eastern Phoebe is Texas is stable, perhaps even improving. In general, the range as determined by the TBBAP was equivalent to that described in The Bird Life of Texas (Oberholser 1974) with the exception of northeast Texas. Oberholser describes the species as “rare, and extremely local in the eastern third” of the state. The range map in Oberholser shows only one breeding record for northeast Texas. TBBAP data, on the other hand, indicate that Eastern Phoebes were found in all but 6 of the 64 atlasing blocks for that region. And, fully half of the blocks had confirmed breeding evidence. Local checklists regard the species as a rare summer resident near Marshall and Caddo Lake (Harrison County Checklist 1962) and not present at all in June-July-August near Commerce (Hunt County Checklist 1957). Interestingly, the Tyler Audubon Society, compiler of the Field Check-list: Birds of Smith County, regards the Eastern Phoebe as a “fairly common winter resident and rare, summer resident” in the original 1959 edition of the checklist but in the 1962 revision it is recorded as only and “uncommon winter bird”. Further revisions place the phoebe as an “uncommon resident” in Tyler (Tyler Audubon Society 1976, 1988).

The TBBAP data indicate that the Eastern Phoebe has gained ground at least during the breeding season in northeast Texas. Although not necessarily very abundant, it seems to be a much more widespread breeder than previous observations indicate. In addition, Breeding Bird Survey data for Texas routes show a 2.721% increase per year in abundance of Eastern Phoebe from 1967 to 1985 (BBS, pers. comm.). Texas Breeding Bird Atlas data from 1987 to 1992 further substantiate this trend.

Text by Karen L. P. Benson (ca. 1992)

Texas Breeding Bird Atlas map

Literature cited

Carlson, S.   1991.  Eastern Phoebe  (Sayornis phoebe,.  In The atlas of breeding birds of Michigan (R. Brewer,  G. A. McPeek, and  R.  J. Adams, Jr., eds.).  Michigan State University Press, East Lansing.

Coffey, J. W.  1963.  A nesting study of the Eastern Phoebe.  Migrant   34: 41-49.

Cuthbert, N. L.  1962.  The Michigan Audubon Society phoebe study (Part II).  Jack-Pine Warbler 40: 68-83.

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

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