Green Neighbors: In Praise of the Black Phoebe

By Joe Eaton
Thursday September 25, 2008 - 11:56:00 AM
A black phoebe near its nest at Tilden Regional Park's Little Farm.
By Ron Sullivan
A black phoebe near its nest at Tilden Regional Park's Little Farm.

The black phoebe is an admirable bird in many ways. What I appreciate most about it is its identifiability. No other California bird is anything like it: small, black with a white belly, short crest, upright posture. This is remarkable in a member of the tyrant flycatcher family, many of whose species are cryptic in the extreme.  

Called tyrant flycatchers because they often dominate other birds, they range from Alaska to Patagonia. The Old World flycatchers, superficially similar, are something else again, related to the thrushes. 

The family includes the notorious genus Empidonax—“empids” to birders. Several empid species are almost impossible to separate in the field. Worse, the taxonomists keep splitting them. The former western flycatcher is now two species, the Pacific-slope and cordilleran flycatchers, which pretty much have to be identified by geography. If you’re in California, call it a Pacific-slope; in Utah, call it a cordilleran. 

The Myiarchus flycatchers are almost as bad. I once went to Santa Cruz to see an alleged Nutting’s flycatcher, a Mexican stray, which is very similar to the more northerly ash-throated flycatcher. The most reliable clue to species identity is the color of the lining of the mouth. At one point a dozen or so birders were lined up in the street in front of the house where the flycatcher had chosen to winter, waiting for it to open its mouth. (It did, revealing the proper shade for Nutting’s, but the bird remains controversial). 

Farther south, it’s even worse. Open a Mexican or Costa Rican field guide: pages and pages of flycatchers. More empids, more Myiarchuses, and a bunch of near-identical Elaenias. Costa Rica has the unfortunate bran-colored flycatcher—what kind of name is that?—which resembles a streaky empid. There are a handful of conspicuously gaudy species: the vermillion flycatcher of the Southwest, the scissor-tailed flycatcher of the southern Great Plains, the many-colored rush-tyrant of Argentine wetlands. But they’re the exceptions. Mostly you get variations on drab. 

The black phoebe isn’t colorful, but it is obviously what it is. It’s around all year, and it doesn’t object to human company. All a pair needs is an overhang, manmade or otherwise, for a nest site, and a nearby source of water, anything from a natural pond to a horse trough or fountain. Like robins and barn swallows, black phoebes build with mud.  

Although it’s a flycatcher, its diet, if one California study is representative, includes more native bees and wasps than flies. One black phoebe died after swallowing a honeybee, which suggests that these useful insects are not on the regular menu. Surprisingly, black phoebes are also fish-eaters. A Pasadena bird was observed diving for goldfish, and a pair in Humboldt County nested near a fish hatchery and fed their brood young steelhead and salmon. Blue elderberries are also eaten. 

There are two other North American phoebe species: the Say’s phoebe of the arid interior and the eastern phoebe, which nested in Thoreau’s shed. Breeding and wintering populations of Say’s in central California and the occasional stray eastern create the possibility of a three-phoebe day. Say’s has a brown back, buff belly, and black tail; the eastern is gray with yellowish underparts, and lacks an eyering or wingbars. (Some ornithologists consider the South American population of the black phoebe to be a fourth species, the white-winged phoebe.) 

On a trip through the Southwest, I came to think of the Say’s phoebe as the State Bird of the Middle of Nowhere. When there was nothing moving in the landscape—not a coyote, not a vulture, not an all-terrain vehicle—there would be Say’s phoebes. Like the black phoebe, the Say’s will build its nest in the eaves of a house or barn if it can find one. Understandably, it uses less mud. 

Say’s phoebes nest in the inner Coast Range; I’ve seen them in spring among the rocks and juniper of Del Puerto Canyon, south of Livermore. Migrants from farther north also winter along the coast, from Sonoma County south. 

You may be wondering about Say (the phoebe genus is Sayornis, “Say’s bird,” and the Say’s phoebe is Sayornis saya.) He was a Philadelphian, grandson of botanist John Bartram, and mainly an insect man; he’s been called the father of American entomology. But naturalists were generalists in those days: when Say accompanied expeditions to the Rockies and the Upper Mississipi, he collected and described whatever was around. Along with a lot of insects, he introduced the lesser goldfinch, lark sparrow, and coyote to science. 

But he met a sad end. In 1826 Say traveled with other intellectuals and artists on what was called the Boatload of Knowledge to New Harmony, Indiana, where the British industrialist/philanthropist Robert Owen had founded a utopian colony. The naturalist died there of typhoid fever at age 47. Some Utopia.