Say's Phoebe

Sayornis saya

  • Version: 2.0 — Published September 10, 2019
  • John M. Schukman and Blair O. Wolf

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Figure 1. Distribution of the Say's Phoebe.
Say's Phoebe (2 January).

Medium-sized flycatcher. Seasonally and sexually monomorphic, although plumage becomes faded with wear by summer. Adult upperparts brownish, head and hindneck darker; tail brownish black, outer web of outer rectrix white; wings deep brownish gray with indistinct pale wing bars; chin, throat, and upper breast buffy brownish gray. Cinnamon belly and undertail coverts of Say's Phoebe are unique among North American flycatchers.

© Michael Bolte , California , United States , 2 January 2018

A bird of open country, Say's Phoebe is similar in behavior, size, and breeding biology to the Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) and Eastern Phoebe (S. phoebe), although its voice, coloration, and habitat preferences are distinctive. Dawson (1) described its melancholy call as the most despondent of all the “pewees.” Its drab gray-brown back, black tail, and cinnamon-colored belly fade into the sage brush plains, barren foothills, and rimrock country where this species resides. Say's Phoebe breeds over much of western North America, from the Great Plains west nearly to the Pacific coast. Indeed, it has one of the broadest latitudinal ranges among North American flycatchers, extending from central Mexico farther north than any other into the arctic tundra, apparently constrained only by lack of suitable nest sites.

In the fall, northern populations of Say's Phoebe migrate south to overwinter in the southwestern United States and central Mexico, overlapping with southern residents. Compared to other western flycatchers, spring migration begins early for this species. It contends with cold weather and the scarcity of flying prey by hover-gleaning insects from the ground. Primarily insectivorous, it captures wild bees and wasps most frequently, but also flies, beetles, and grasshoppers, generally foraging from perches within 1–2 meters of the ground.

Like other Sayornis, this species shows strong nest-site tenacity. Typically monogamous and frequently double-brooded, it builds its nest (under a protective ceiling) on a rocky ledge or other supporting shelf, which often includes human-made structures. It frequently nests in abandoned buildings among prairie farms and western ranches. Its nest, typically constructed of grass, stems, moss, and other fibrous plant materials, differs from that of the Black Phoebe and Eastern Phoebe in that mud is rarely used in its construction. Nest completion and egg-laying typically occur in mid-March in Texas and late May in Alaska. The female incubates the clutch of 4 or 5 eggs for about 15 days, and young fledge about 17 days after hatching.

Say's Phoebe is the least studied of the Sayornis group. Anecdotal accounts make up a large portion of the literature concerning this species, but important work on the species' breeding biology and behavior has been undertaken in Texas (2, 3), Nevada (4), and Kansas (5, 6). The dietary preferences of this species have been reported in some detail by Beal (7) rangewide, Ohlendorf (3) in Texas, and Rosenberg et al. (8) in Arizona, and its foraging biology has received limited study by Ackerman (4) in Nevada. Schukman et al. (9) modeled niche relationships between Say’s Phoebe and Eastern Phoebe, focusing on their contact zone in the Great Plains. Behavior and vocal communication are little studied; limited attention was devoted to Say's Phoebe by Smith (10, 11) in studies of Sayornis communication and behavior. Almost no information is available on the population dynamics, demography, physiology, energetics, and nutritional requirements of this species.

Recommended Citation

Schukman, J. M. and B. O. Wolf (2019). Say's Phoebe (Sayornis saya), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.