How to Identify an Eastern Phoebe

Learn what an eastern phoebe looks like, and what their song sounds like. Find out what these birds eat and where to find them.

Scientific Name: Sayornis phoebe
Family: Flycatcher
Length: 7 inches
Wingspan: 10-1/2 inches
Distinctive Markings: White throat, long dark tail and a dark head

The adult eastern phoebe is a brownish gray bird with a white throat and rather plain wings. The bird’s large head is darker gray than the rest of the body.

“I was lucky enough to watch this beautiful eastern phoebe (above) one day. The bird came pretty close and gave me many different poses. What made this encounter even more special was that it was the first time I’d ever seen this type of bird,” says Birds & Blooms reader Kathy Wooding of Highland Park, New Jersey.

Meet more members of the flycatcher bird family.

Juvenile Eastern Phoebe

12 Juliaworth Bbjj20Courtesy Julia Worth
Young fledglings look slightly different than adults.

“We spotted this bird (above) in our backyard. What is it?” asks reader Julia Worth of Weymouth, Massachusetts.

Birding experts Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman say, “Some birds that show up in summer can be genuinely confusing because they are very young, having just learned to fly, and look noticeably different from adults. This one is a good example: It’s a young eastern phoebe. It probably left the nest and became independent from its parents just a few days before you saw it.

This youngster is a dingy brown on the throat and chest and has pale cinnamon-buff wing bars. By early fall, with some of these feathers replaced, it will look more like its parents.”

What is a fledgling? See how a baby bird grows up

Nest and Eggs

Eastern phoebe nest and eggsCourtesy Patricia Bourgeois
Eastern phoebe nest with two brown-headed cowbird eggs

An eastern phoebe nest is made of mud and moss, and lined with grasses, hair and feathers. You might see it under a bridge, deck or in a cave entrance. The nest holds two to six plain white eggs.

“My shed was left open and I saw an eastern phoebe slipping out. Inside was a nest with four white eggs and two speckled eggs. What kind of bird lays eggs and leaves them in another nest?” asks reader Patricia Bourgeois of Douglas, Massachusetts.

Kenn and Kimberly say, “The four white eggs in your photo  (above) were laid by the phoebe, but a female brown-headed cowbird is responsible for the two speckled eggs. Cowbirds are brood parasites and never raise their own young. Instead, they lay their eggs in the nests of other songbirds, leaving the unwitting foster parents to hatch the eggs and feed the young.

Eastern phoebes build open nests that are easy to find, so they are frequent targets for cowbirds. In some parts of their range, as many as one in four phoebe nests contains cowbird eggs.”

The First Banded Bird

09 Marielehmann Bbxmar19Courtesy Marie Lehmann
Eastern phoebes migrate earlier in spring than other flycatchers.

Eastern phoebes made history in 1804 when John James Audubon tied silver thread on the legs of nestlings to track their migration. This was the first North American experiment in bird banding. The next year he found two of his marked birds nesting nearby.

“Last year, an eastern phoebe (above) visited my backyard from winter through spring. It was the first time I had seen one stop by. I enjoyed watching it wag its tail up and down as it perched on tree limbs,” says Marie Lehmann of Milton, Florida.

What Does an Eastern Phoebe Eat?

253812264 1 Betsy Staples Bnb Bypc2020Courtesy Betsy Staples
Eastern phoebe with an insect meal

These members of the flycatcher family “eat mostly aerial insects,” says Desiree L. Narango, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The eastern phoebe takes short flights from a favorite perch and snatches a mosquito or fly midair. To attract them, grow native plants to attract bugs.

“While out for a birding walk in the spring, I came across this eastern phoebe with breakfast in its beak (above),” says reader Betsy Staples.

Insect eating birds: What types of birds eat bees, mosquitoes and butterflies?

Eastern Phoebe Call and Song

eastern phoebe Barbara DivisCourtesy Barbara Davis
Listen for this bird to sing it’s own name.

Listen to the eastern phoebe’s song. The male calls its name in rapid succession, “fee-bee, fee-bee, fee-bee.” Also listen for a clear, whistled “weew” or “tiboo.”

Bird songs provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

See more small brown birds you might see.

Range Map and Habitat

These birds are among the earliest migrants to return to their breeding grounds, so many birders look forward to seeing them in early spring. They also leave later in fall than other flycatchers. Look for them near water, particularly woods with streams, and farmyards and country roads with bridges crossing streams.

Eastern Phoebe Bird Species

Range maps provided by Kaufman Field Guides, the official field guide of Birds & Blooms.

Next, learn how to identify a red-eyed vireo.

Jill Staake
Jill Staake's lifelong love of nature turned into a career during the years she spent working with native Florida butterflies, caterpillars, and other wildlife at the Museum of Science & Industry in Tampa, Florida. During this time, she helped to maintain 30+ acres of gardens and backwoods, all carefully cultivated to support the more than 20 species of butterflies displayed indoors and out. She now writes for a variety of publications and sites on topics like gardening and birding, among others.