Illustration of Say's phoebe

Illustration by H. Douglas Pratt


Map: Say's phoebe range


This widespread western species is frequently seen perching on bushes, boulders, fences, and utility wires. Polytypic (4 ssp.; 3 in North America). Length 4.5" (11 cm).

Identification Grayish brown above; darkest on wings and head, especially lores and behind eye. Breast and throat are paler, more grayish; contrast with tawny-cinnamon belly and undertail coverts. Contrasting black tail is particularly obvious in flight. Juvenile: plumage is briefly held. Similar to adult but browner, with 2 cinnamon wing bars and cinnamon tips to the feathers on the upperparts.

Geographic Variation Variation is complicated by individual variation and wear. Compared to more widespread nominate, northwestern breeding yukonensis (Alaska and Northwest Territories to coastal Oregon) is smaller billed, with deeper orange underparts and deeper gray upperparts. Resident quiescens (deserts of southeastern California and southwestern Arizona) is paler brownish gray above and paler tan or buff on belly.

Similar Species Yellow-bellied kingbirds can appear similar in bright light (especially the western kingbird), but all have a heavier bill, dark mask, yellow belly, and olive upperparts; unlike phoebes, they do not dip the tail. Female and immature vermilion flycatchers have a white throat and white chest with brown streaks; most show pale supercilium contrasting with dark auriculars.

Voice Call: typical call is a thin, plaintive, whistled, slightly downslurred pee-ee. Song: a fast whistled pit-tsear, often given in flight.

Status and Distribution Common. Breeding: a variety of open and dry habitats from tundra to desert, usually with cliffs, canyons, rocky outcroppings, or human-made structures for nesting. Migration: early in spring, late in fall. Bulk of migrants arrive from Colorado to east of the Sierra Nevada in California late March–mid-April; southern British Columbia. late March–mid-April; and Alaska early to mid-May. In fall, most depart Alberta late August–early September.; Colorado and Oregon late August–September. Vagrant: casual over most of the East (late fall–early winter) with records for every state and province except Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland, New Hampshire, West Virginia, Nunavut, and Prince Edward Island.

Population Apparently stable.

—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006

Bird Features

  • Illustration of great horned owl

    What's That Bird?

    Identify your backyard visitors in a flash! Just answer four simple questions to search our database of 150 backyard birds common to Canada and the U.S.

  • Picture of a hummingbird

    Backyard Birds Quiz

    How much do you know about the feathered visitors to your backyard? Put your avian IQ to the test with this quiz.

See More Bird Features »

National Geographic Magazine

  • Photo: bowerbird mating game between female and male bowerbirds.

    Bowerbirds Gallery

    To woo a "Mary," bowerbirds decorate with shells, cans, even pink paper clips.

  • Photo: Female whooping crane feeding her young

    Counting Cranes

    How many whooping cranes are there? Not enough. See photos of these birds in action.

Animals A-Z