Bird Database

Eastern Phoebe

(Sayornis phoebe)

State of the Birds
At a Glance



Short distance




Predation, Collisions

Conservation Actions

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Eastern Phoebe

(Sayornis phoebe)

Given its proclivity for nesting on buildings, the Eastern Phoebe is the most familiar flycatcher in New Hampshire. Many homeowners are well-acquainted with the species from nests found on top of light fixtures, on beams in sheds, or under eaves, and it just as often uses bridges. They can be incredibly tolerant of disturbance, only flying off their mossy nests when people get extremely close. Even then they’re likely to stay nearby until the coast is clear, wagging their tails and uttering their signature “fee-bee” the whole time. 

But what did phoebes do before people built structures for them to nest on? They can best be characterized as “niche nesters,” meaning they build their nests in small, enclosed spaces with a roof – but not in cavities. Natural sites include cliffs, caves, and upturned tree roots, and such locations are still used regularly. It’s suspected that the Eastern Phoebe’s distribution was historically limited by the availability of such natural substrates, and it only expanded westward into the Great Plains along with the proliferation of buildings and bridges. 

Eastern Phoebes winter primarily in the southeastern United States, which puts them much closer to their breeding grounds than other flycatchers. As a result, they are among the first songbirds to return to New Hampshire in spring, usually arriving by the middle of March (late March in the northern half of the state). This also allows them to produce multiple broods, ensuring a steady supply of young phoebes in suburban yards. 

If there is a downside to their northerly winter range and early spring arrival, it is that phoebes are more vulnerable to the vagaries of the weather than many other migrants. Cold snaps in the south and spring snowstorms both have the potential to suppress insect supplies. Phoebes can eat fruit as well, but there aren’t usually many berries around in March and April to sustain them, and under such adverse conditions many do not survive. This variable risk of mortality is probably one reason phoebe population trends fluctuate so much. Numbers will be low after a harsh non-breeding season, only to rebound thanks to high productivity. As a result, the population is best described as stable.

Seasonal Abundance

Relative abundance based on eBird data. Numbers indicate likelihood of finding this species in suitable habitat at a given time of year, not actual numbers encountered.

Eastern Phoebe
Range Map

Information for the species profiles on this website was compiled from a combination of the sources listed below.

  • The Birds of New Hampshire. By Allan R. Keith and Robert B. Fox. 2013. Memoirs of the Nuttall Ornithological club No. 19.

  • Atlas of the Breeding Birds of New Hampshire. Carol R. Foss, ed. 1994. Arcadia Publishing Company and Audubon Society of New Hampshire

  • Birds of the World. Various authors and dates. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

  • Data from the Breeding Bird Survey

  • Data from the Christmas Bird Count