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Bird Bio: Black Phoebe

By: Teresa “Bird” Wicks, KBO Education Intern

Black Phoebe © Jim LivaudaisThe Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) is the only black and white flycatcher found in North America. Thus, they are easily distinguished by their mostly black body and white belly. Eastern Kingbirds and Eastern Phoebes, similarly, are dark above and pale below, but are generally grayer and also have a pale throat and breast. Additionally, the range of the Black Phoebe barely overlaps the ranges of these two species. The range of the Say’s Phoebe, however, does overlap that of the Black Phoebe, but the gray-brown upper parts and rust-colored belly of the Say’s Phoebe make it difficult to mistake for a Black Phoebe. When Black Phoebes are perched they are often seen “wagging” their tails, a characteristic shared by both the Say’s and Eastern Phoebes.

The Black Phoebe’s range extends north from western South America through most of Central America and Mexico, and into the United States. In the United States, they are predominantly found in the southwestern states, historically breeding and wintering along western California into the Rogue Valley in Oregon. In the late 20th century, the Black Phoebe’s range expanded north to Curry County, where they are now considered year-round residents, and Coos County, where winter sightings are becoming more common. Due to their ability to cohabitate with humans, the Black Phoebe’s range continues to expand in Oregon, with irregular reports in the Umpqua and Willamette Valleys.

As with other flycatchers, Black Phoebes are primarily insectivorous. They feed by sallying from their perch and catching airborne insects, or by gleaning insects from plants. Small insects are consumed on the wing, while larger insects are carried back to a perch where they can be killed and then consumed. Occasionally, Black Phoebes will dive into the water to capture minnows and other small fish!

Black Phoebes are most often found along streams, ponds and marshes, typically perched on the lower branches of riparian trees or low-lying manmade structures. When it comes to nesting, male Black Phoebes hover near potential nest sites whereas females choose the final site and construct the nest. Their open-cup nests, made of mud and vegetation, are cemented to cliff faces, bridges, and other manmade structures, and resemble Barn Swallow nests.

This article appears in the Winter/Spring 2013 Newsletter. 

Sources: Marshall, D.B., M.G. Hunter, and A.L. Contreras, Eds. 2003. Birds of Oregon: A General Reference. Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, OR. 768 Pp.; Wolf, B.O. 1997. Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans). In The Birds of North America, No. 268 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C.
The Black Phoebe is a nearly all black bird with a white belly. Photo © Jim Livaudais 2013.