Doing Just Fine, Thank You—The Black Phoebe

“Hey—grab the scope! What’s that bird?” I pointed to a small, dark bird with a distinctly dipping tail, sitting upright on a distant branch overhanging the river. For the Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas, we were surveying our block of pinyon/juniper, high-altitude conifers, and a short stretch of the Arkansas River in central Colorado, to document evidence of birds’ breeding (e.g., courtship, nest-building, carrying food, feeding fledglings). The scope revealed the bird’s identity—a Black Phoebe! It was a remarkable find for this block; the only expected aspect of the encounter was that the bird had perched near water. We never saw it again. When we moved to Oceanside years later, imagine our amazement when we glimpsed a Black Phoebe on a fence near our new house. Wow—extraordinary! However, I soon learned that, unlike in central Colorado, Black Phoebes in coastal San Diego County are common as dirt. Got a lot to learn in this new area.

The Black Phoebe is a distinctive, medium-sized, elegantly plumaged flycatcher—the only black-and-white flycatcher in North America. The head appears fairly large and peaked; the body, somewhat angular at the shoulders; the tail, long, narrow at the base, and flared toward the tip. All of the upper parts and breast are black; the belly and undertail, stark white. (Males and females look the same although juveniles can have a brownish cast.) A tail dip often accompanies its simple one-note call. All in all, the bird’s pattern, contrast, and behavior are unmistakable.

Black Phoebes reside in San Diego County year-round but their range covers only the West Coast and the Southwest. Almost any quasi-permanent bit of water with a nearby source of mud for nest construction attracts this species. In many areas, natural nest sites, such as sheltered rock faces, streamside boulders, and hollow cavities in trees, have largely given way to artificial nest sites provided by human-made structures. An irrigated lawn, pond, livestock watering trough, or even a stagnant swimming pool serves as foraging habitat; a building or bridge provides a nest site; and a mud puddle offers nest material.

A patient, sit-and-wait predator, this insectivore usually hunts prey from a fairly low perch, its tail wagging nervously and often slightly spread. Flying insects make up the bulk of the Black Phoebe’s diet, but it also gleans other insects and arthropods from various substrates. Some birds even capture little fish or pluck small berries, especially when the insect population diminishes. This bird defines the term “vocal”: It incessantly issues its simple, two-part, high, thin, whistled song primarily January to July, while its repeated one-note call (similar to the first note of its song) rings through neighborhoods the rest of the year.

Unlike more migratory flycatchers, Black Phoebe regularly raise two broods a season, beginning in early March. Although the specific supports vary, the mud-based nest always has some type of overhang to protect the nest from moisture (always important for mud- based housing—just ask a Cliff Swallow). Clutch size varies from 1 to 6 eggs and incubation ranges from 15 to 18 days. Both adults feed nestlings by regurgitation for the first five days after hatching; after that, the adults bring whole insects. The entire brood typically leaves the nest between 18 and 21 days, all on same day. The young initially sit near each other in the canopy of a tree or a bush; they soon make short forays from bush to bush. Young birds may be taught to capture prey by an adult’s releasing live insects in front of them. Young birds attain independence 7–11 days after fledging. The durability of the nest and its protected location allow a nest to be refurbished and reused year after year.

Known in scientific circles as Sayornis nigricans, the Black Phoebe’s genus name (Sayornis or “Say’s bird”) honors Thomas Say, an American naturalist who wrote the report for Long’s expedition to the Rocky Mountains from 1819-1820. Latin for “verging on black,” nigricans refers to the bird’s dark upperparts, as does the first word of the common name. “Phoebe” likely derives from an imitation of the two-syllable call of its congener, the Eastern Phoebe.

Importation of water and the building of structures ideal for nest sites have turned parts of San Diego County into Black Phoebe paradise. Christmas Bird Count data show that the numbers of Black Phoebes along the coast have increased in recent years, compared to more inland areas (e.g., Escondido, Lake Henshaw). This disparity suggests that the increase may be a positive response to coastal development’s creating more habitat, rather than a negative response limited just to inland habitats due to climate change or other factors.

Development often ruins habitat for wildlife. In this instance, though, development appears to have allowed this neighborly, tuxedoed flycatcher to appear widely in coastal regions—perhaps even in your neighborhood.

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