The Say’s Phoebe

Wetlands Park Friends


The Say’s Phoebe (Sayornis saya) is one of Clark County Wetlands Park’s most charming and common resident birds. In addition, it is one of the easiest to see, since at least a couple of resident pairs can be found “hanging out” and eating insects off the walls of the Nature Center building most days.

Say’s phoebes are tyrannid flycatchers and are almost completely insectivorous, meaning their food consists mostly of insects. Of all the flycatchers found in Nevada, they hunt closest to the ground, looking for low-flying insects, or even plucking them right off the ground. They often perch and scan for meals from low bushes, fence posts, rocks, or even the tips of weeds. They also will hover just a few feet off the ground in search of prey. Most notably, the residents at the Nature Center frequently “drive” insects into the walls, where they can more easily pick them off.

Insects have stiff, crunchy exoskeletons that do not digest completely. Phoebes solve this problem by accumulating the larger indigestible insect body parts in their gizzards, which grind up food before it enters the stomach. Periodically the phoebes regurgitate them as compact pellets like those produced by owls.

Say’s phoebes like nesting sites that have a roof overhead. In wild places, they nest on recessed rocky ledges, ledges in caves, beneath overhanging rocks or stream banks, or in holes in banks. Though they are not true “backyard” birds, they also favor nesting sites inside abandoned buildings. They will even nest near people, as they do at the Nature Center every year.

Years ago, a pair nested on top of a light fixture in the overhang in front of the Barrick Museum at UNLV. They actually hatched a nest of young ones in January. The whole museum staff felt badly for the harassed parents, looking for insects in the cold, so we set them out  a tray of the crickets we ordered for our live critters. Within a few days, the phoebe parents would sit on the office window ledge doing  a great impersonation of “Angry Birds” if we let that tray get empty!

Watch for the Wetlands Park Nature Center phoebes in flight (or on the wall) when you are on the building deck. Listen for their simple but beautiful “peeeee” call as you walk the trails. Often, you will  hear them calling before you see them.

Please enjoy these YouTube videos!

Say’s Phoebe perched and singing

Say’s Phoebe nest through time with young hatching to fledging

– By Chris Leavitt, President; photo is by David Walker