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Say's Phoebe


Last updated 6/19/2019 at 2:31pm

Doug Harling

The Say’s Phoebe is one of my favorite flycatchers. That may be because they are one of the few flycatchers to frequent our backyards. I have two pair that return to my neighborhood every year. I always hear that soft whistle long before I start seeing them. While most flycatchers will be found in more rural areas, the Say’s Phoebe has adapted well to hustle and bustle of the city life.

These particular images were taken at the Fountain Creek Nature Center. They have a nest right over the front door into the nature center. If you go to see them, you will find mom and dad waiting patiently across from the door to bring in food. They will usually build their own nest, but this particular pair have taken over a swallow’s nest for the second year. The ones in my neighborhood build their nest in the same spot every year over one neighbor’s garage. The babies at the nature center are very close to fledging and may already be out of the nest by the time this column comes out. Mom and dad will stick around and most likely lay another set of eggs and raise a second brood. You can see in the images, mom and dad have various bugs they have caught to take to the babies waiting in the nest. Hundreds of people a day pass by them and they don’t seem to care at all. If you decide to go look, look for two swallow’s nests over the entrance door into the nature center. If the babies already fledged, give them a few weeks for mom and dad to start nesting again.

The Say’s Phoebe will perch on low shrubs or rocks and dart out at bugs. You may even see them catch several at a time. Another way they catch their food is to hover over the ground and then drop in on a bug they see. The hovering behavior is very common with all flycatchers. Although the Say’s Phoebe will feed on small berries, insects are their main food source. They feed heavily on bees, wasps and winged ants (which you can see in one of the images.) They will feed on non-flying insects as well, like spiders and millipedes. With all the feeders I have in my habitat, I have never seen them use them. You may be able to attract them to meal worms but I have not seen that. They come to your yard just to nest. They really do not even need the water. Unlike the other two phoebe species, the Say’s have no real attachment to water. You will not find them near swampy areas. I never even see them use my bird baths. Providing safe nesting areas is about all you can do to promote them to nest in your yard.

Males will arrive back from migration before the females. For weeks on end, you can hear the males whistle from sunup to sundown and even into the darkness. The whistle is very simple yet distinctive. Once you hear it, you will know forever when you hear the Say’s Phoebe. I talk to the ones at the nature center but they know I’m a bird brain. If I try to talk to the ones that nest over my neighbor’s garage, I may get the authorities called on me. They are a fun little bird to watch and they are very attentive to their nest. If you get too close, they will let you know.

The Say’s Phoebe will usually have two broods a year but can have three. Four is an average number of eggs but you can see from three to seven. Eggs will be white. If you see an egg that has brown or reddish spots, they are believed to be the last egg laid, I am not sure why that is. The female will do all of the incubation and it will be about 14-16 days. Mom and dad will both feed the babies and the babies will be in the nest for about 14-16 days. The birds grow very fast. If you happen to find a fledgling on the ground, it is best to leave it. Mom and dad will know where it is and will continue to feed it. It will most likely be able to fly by the end of the day. Last year, one fell from the nest over my neighbor’s garage. They took a little bowl to use as a nest and put it up under the rain gutters. Within an hour, mom and dad were feeding it.

I challenge my readers to learn about the different flycatcher species and see if you know where to find them. Feel free to send a message or call to let me know if you have Say’s Phoebes nesting at your home.

Start with the Say’s Phoebes, by making a trip to the nature center. Even if you have a hard time getting around and can’t do long walks, the phoebes at the nature center are right at the building and just a few short steps from the parking lot. You will be amazed how once you see your first one and what they look and sound like, you will begin to see them everywhere!

I want to thank all the readers that have been contacting me and telling me how much they enjoy the weekly column. I hope the birds touch your soul as they have mine. Happy birding!


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