The Black Phoebe

Black Phoebe sitting on a tree branch

Bring on the Party!!! This Is One Wetlands Park Resident Who’s Always Formally Dressed

Black phoebes (Sayornis nigricans) are among my favorite Clark County Wetlands Park birds. Often described as “dapper,” I wish I had thought of that word myself – it describes them perfectly! Their jet-black bodies and bright white bellies make them look for all the world like my musician friends in their tuxedos, ready for a concert or a holiday party. Their ability to raise the feathers on top of their heads to make a short “crest” is the perfect substitute for a Victorian top hat!  In the case of black phoebes, however, both males and females turn out in the same formal dress.

These small, attractive members of the Tyrant Flycatcher family (Tyrannidae) breed along the west coast and in the southwestern United States and southward into Central and South America. They require access to water and are always found near water sources. Particularly favored are streams, ponds, rivers, and lakes, especially those with marshy vegetation and trees or shrubs that overhang the water. Black Phoebes build their cup-shaped nests of grass, mud, hair, and plant fibers under overhanging cliff ledges, overhangs, culverts, and bridges. They are not shy birds, and do well around humans, often using landscaped yards and parks as hunting areas, and the eaves of buildings for nesting sites.

Watching a black phoebe hunt is one of the great treats at Wetlands Park. Look for them sitting on low perches, often overhanging the water, or on rocks at the surface of a pond or stream. Almost like skimmer dragonflies, the birds fly out from their perches to capture flying insects on the wing, a strategy called “hawking.” Some of their prey items seem very large for the bird’s size. A nutritious meal may include small wasps, wild bees, beetles, flies, true bugs, grasshoppers, crickets, moths, and even dragonflies (and damselflies), spiders, ticks, and millipedes. 

Black phoebes will also snatch small minnows from the surface of the water, sometimes to feed their nestlings. One in a YouTube video I watched was sitting on a block wall eating a tiny lizard! Particularly in winter, the phoebes may vary their hunting strategy to include gleaning insects from the ground.  Because so much of their diet (like insect exoskeletons) is very hard, phoebes share with hawks and owls the trait of regurgitating pellets of undigested food material after a meal.

While perched, black phoebes often “bob” or “pump” their tails up and down. This behavior is called tail “wagging,” and becomes more frequent when a bird is alert or nervous, especially if it notices a predator nearby. The tail bobbing seems to be a way for the phoebe to let the predator know that its presence has been noticed, and its chances of “phoebe-for-lunch” have just been reduced!

Watch for a perched black phoebe on your Wetlands Park rambles. Binoculars will help you see the tail bobbing and the quick loop across the water to gobble an insect, though the bird’s formal attire is striking without magnification!

–  By Chris Leavitt, President; photo from Wetlands Park Archives by Rod Bailey.

Please enjoy these YouTube videos!

Black Phoebe Facts

Black Phoebe Nest 2019

Black Phoebe Catching an Insect (50x Slow Motion),vid:2srpOsUoPfI