Eastern Phoebe

Sayornis phoebe

  • Version: 2.0 — Published April 28, 2011
  • Harmon P. Weeks Jr.

Free Introduction Article Access

The Introduction Article is just the first of 11 articles in each species account that provide life history information for the species. The remaining articles provide detailed information regarding distribution, migration, habitat, diet, sounds, behavior, breeding, current population status and conservation. Each species account also includes a multimedia section that displays the latest photos, audio selections and videos from Macaulay Library’s extensive galleries. Written and continually updated by acknowledged experts on each species, Birds of North America accounts include a comprehensive bibliography of published research on the species.

A subscription is needed to access the remaining account articles and multimedia content. Rates start at $5 USD for 30 days of complete access.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Sign In
Figure 1. Breeding, nonbreeding (winter), and year-round ranges of the Eastern Phoebe.

See text for extra-limital records.

Adult Eastern Phoebe, Kalamazoo, MI, June.

Adults in summer are very drab, with essentially no wingbars, contrasting dark heads, and grayish-white underparts. The following is a link to this photographer's website:

Despite its unobtrusive behavior and drab coloration, the Eastern Phoebe is a familiar bird to those who live within its range. Its tendency to nest on human dwellings and under bridges has endeared it to many and earned it the common names of “bridge pewee” and “barn pewee” in 19th century North America. Indeed, this flycatcher's use of bridges has evidently been a key element in the spread of its breeding range into the Great Plains and the southeastern United States. Unlike the Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica), however, it has not totally abandoned its original nest sites and continues to nest on rock outcrops and other natural niches when available.

This phoebe is one of the earliest migrants to nest in the northern United States and southern Canada, with pairs forming and building nests in late March in the southern reaches of its breeding range. A monogamous and typically double-brooded species, individuals usually keep the same mate for both broods. The unique character and scarcity of this phoebe's nest sites promotes strong site-attachment, so that the same pair occasionally occupies the same site in successive years—a fact first documented by John James Audubon in 1804 when he tied a small circle of silver thread to the legs of nestling phoebes and then documented their return in successive years.

Most Eastern Phoebes winter in the southeastern United States, although some winter as far north as the lower Midwest and as far south as Mexico. Severe winters in the southern United States may cause periodic population crashes of this species. Although strongly insectivorous, this phoebe can subsist on fruits when cold, windy weather makes insects scarce.

Because of its intimate association with humans and their edifices, there is a long history of anecdotal accounts and observational notes for the Eastern Phoebe. However, there is also a plethora of scientific studies, many focusing on aspects of reproductive biology and behavior. The earliest major work is that of Klaas (1970), in Kansas, which is at the western limit of this phoebe's distribution; yet other major works have followed in Kansas, specifically those of Murphy (1994) and Schukman (1974). Weeks (1978, 1979) conducted long-term studies in Indiana; Conrad and Robertson (1993a, b) examined reproductive behavior in Ontario, as did Hill and Gates (1988) in West Virginia.

Eastern Phoebes are occasional, sometimes frequent, hosts, of the Brown-headed Cowbird; that fact, coupled with the easy availability of nests, has led to several major investigations of cowbird/phoebe associations, beginning with Klaas (1975) in Kansas and followed by Rothstein (1975,1986) in Connecticut and Michigan, and most recently Hauber (2001, 2003a, 2006) in New York.

Thus best known aspects of this species' life history are reproduction (especially clutch size), nesting success, and impacts of nest parasitism. Additionally, aspects of nestling growth (Stoner 1959, Mahan 1964, Murphy 1981) and behavioral displays and songs (Smith 1969, 1970) are well described. In contrast, except for the work of Beal (1912) and Via (1979), we know relatively little of the Eastern Phoebe's food habits and only a modicum about its energy budgets, relationships, and trade-offs. Recently, substantial DNA work has been done (Beheler 2001), studies that have documented considerable extra-pair paternity and polygyny in this socially monogamous species.

Recommended Citation

Weeks Jr., H. P. (2011). Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.