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Eastern Phoebe

Common Name: Eastern Phoebe.

Scientific Name: Sayornis Phoebe.

What to look for?  The Eastern Phoebe is a medium-sized, plump songbird. One noticeable feature is that the head looks unusually large for a bird of its size. The Eastern Phoebe also looks like it has a flat top haircut. Overall, its coloration is rather dull to blend in with its surrounding woodland habitat. The Eastern Phoebe is brownish gray above, darkest on its head, wings, and tail. Its underparts are mostly white, with pale olive wash on sides and breast. They have short, thin bills used for catching insects.

Where can they be found at Carillon Stonegate Pond? Around our ponds and near the edge of the wooded areas. You may find a solitary Eastern Phoebe on a tallgrass or reed, or on a sign or other post. They are typically here for several months from late Spring up to early Fall. These birds spend most of their time in short flights for flying insects.

How big are they? The Eastern Phoebe averages approximately six (6) inches in length. And their wingspan is approximately 10 ½ inches. They weigh in at approximately six (6) ounces.

What are their flight patterns? Eastern Phoebes have a fluttering flight style with shallow wing beats. They are continually active in making short flights to capture insects, and often to the same perch.

How else do they behave? There are several behaviors characteristic of an Eastern Phoebe. They are “perch-and-wait” hunters – patiently sitting atop a perch before darting out to catch an insect. They appear to be constantly wagging or twitching their tail feathers while perching. And they sing their name – “fee be.”

What’s for dinner? Mostly insects. The Eastern Phoebe’s diet consists primarily of flying insects such as wasps, beetles, dragonflies, butterflies and moths, flies, midges, and cicadas. They also eat spiders, ticks, and millipedes. Occasionally they eat small fruits or seeds.

Where do they take up residence? The Eastern Phoebe prefers an open, woodland habitat near water. But a key element of their chosen habitat must be the availability of suitable nesting sites. The summer home for Eastern Phoebes spans across Illinois and the northern portion of the U.S. and into Canada. They winter in Mexico and along the southern U.S.

When and where do they breed and nest? Eastern Phoebes breed in wooded areas near water. They breed in late spring or early summer anywhere from the northern and eastern U.S. and into Canada. They build nests in nooks and under overhangs on bridges, barns, and houses, where the young will be protected from the elements and fairly safe from predators. They may lay up to five eggs that will incubate for approximately two weeks. The young usually leave nest after two weeks. They generally have two broods per year.

Where do they migrate? In Illinois, Eastern Phoebes are common migrants. Illinois is located in the central portion of their breeding territory which stretches east across the U.S. and north into Canada. Eastern Phoebes are among the first arrivals, returning to their breeding grounds in March. They migrate south from September to November, wintering in the southern U.S. and into Mexico.

What is their conservation status? There is no concern. Eastern Phoebe populations have been stable over the last several decades, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 32 million.

Do they make any interesting sounds? Male Eastern Phoebes sing a raspy, two-parted song that gives them their name: "fee-bee.” Here is a link to the sounds of the Eastern Phoebe.

Interesting Facts About the Eastern Phoebe:

  • In 1804, the Eastern Phoebe became the first banded bird in North America (banded by John James Audubon).

  • The Eastern Phoebe often uses buildings and bridges for nest sites, having developed a tolerance to the changing American landscape changes brought on by humans.

  • Unlike most birds, Eastern Phoebes often reuse nests in subsequent years.

  • The Eastern Phoebe is a loner and rarely comes in contact with other phoebes – even their mate.

  • The oldest recorded Eastern Phoebe was approximately 10 years old.

For more information on the Eastern Phoebe and sources of information used in this blog (these are the sources that I am using to learn as I blog), please visit All About Birds, Audubon Society and University of Michigan Animal Diversity Web.  And the Cornell Lab of Ornithology provides a wonderful source of information for anyone interested in learning more about birds.

The Carillon at Stonegate community is very fortunate to have a variety of wetland, forest and prairie environments conducive to a variety of birds and other wildlife, plants and insects. Our community and the Kane County Forest Preserve do an exceptional job in maintaining this natural environment – both for the benefit of the birds and wildlife and for our residents to enjoy.


Take a hike and see what you can find – and identify!

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