When the word “phoebe” comes up, most people automatically think of things like the outermost of Saturn’s known satellites, the Greek Titan-goddess of the moon, or the most fascinating and complex character from that happily departed sitcom, Friends. Anyone who has gone bird watching in North America, however, knows another kind of phoebe, a bold little genus that turns up with remarkable frequency from the arctic circle to the equator.
Phoebes are proud members (at least they seem so) of the Family Tyrannidae, the tyrant flycatchers. These New World flycatchers are almost uniformly aggressive insectivores, but vary widely in size and plumage. Of the more than 400 tyrannids, as birds in this family are sometimes called, only three belong to the genus Sayornis, the phoebes. However, what the phoebes lack in diversity they more than make up for in personality.
The Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) is common everywhere in the U.S. that might even vaguely be considered the East, and other parts besides. This bird is almost certainly the most common flycatcher within its range. It is also one of the most recognizable with its rounded head and telltale tail pump. Bigger than an Empidonax flycatcher and smaller than a Myiarchus, the Eastern Phoebe is usually only mistaken for a pewee, and even that becomes unlikely with experience. This phoebe of phoebes is considered a loner as far as its own kind is concerned, but doesn’t appear to mind human presence. In fact, this is one species that seems to thrive in the face of rampant development. Because Eastern phoebes are early migrants, they serve as a sweet harbinger of spring.
The Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) won’t be mistaken for any other bird; nothing else that size shows such dark plumage with a white belly to contrast. This phoebe is a fixture in the American Southwest and Central America and can be spotted all the way down to Argentina. Black Phoebes eat bugs with the same gusto as any other flycatcher, but will also go after tiny fish.
Say’s Phoebe (Sayornis saya) is the most colorful of the phoebes, gray above but a smart buffy orange below. It’s also the hardiest, breeding as far north as the Alaskan arctic, much further north, in fact, than any other flycatcher. Looking at its range map, this phoebe seems to have split the U.S. with its eastern cousin. Say’s Phoebe is named for the noted American naturalist, Thomas Say, who provided the first official descriptions of this bird and a number of other western species. One might find it ironic that Say, considered the founder of descriptive entomology in the United States, has a bird named for him, but the fact that Say’s Phoebe is a flycatcher seems rather poetic.