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Eastern Phoebe, Christian Artuso
Photo © Christian Artuso

Photo: Christian Artuso
Breeding evidence - Eastern Phoebe
Breeding evidence
Probability of observation - Eastern Phoebe
Probability of observation
Elevation plot - Eastern Phoebe
Elevation plot

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Eastern Phoebe
Sayornis phoebe
Landscape associations:

Click on plot to view table of mean abundance
Elevation range:
382 - 872 m
Conserv. status:
Not at risk
Global importance
of B.C. population:
Number of squares
ConfirmedProbablePossiblePoint counts
29 17 61 37
Long-term BBS trends
RegionYearsTrend (conf. interv.) Reliab.
Brit. Col.1974 - 2012 2.98 (-2.72 - 8.83)Low
Canada1970 - 2012 -1.03 (-2.37 - 0.262)High

Mean abundance by region

Bird Conservation Regions [plot]
NW Interior ForestBoreal Taiga PlainsGreat BasinNorthern RockiesN. Pacific Rainforest
 0.03  0.06  
Ecoprovinces [plot]
N. Boreal Mountains Taiga Plains Boreal Plains Georgia Depression Sub-Boreal Interior
 0.05 0.02  0.06
S. Interior Mountains Central Interior Southern Interior S. Alaska Mountains Coast & Mountains

Mean abundance by habitat [plot]

Boreal Altai Fescue AlpineBoreal White and Black SpruceBunchgrassCoastal Douglas-fir
Coastal Mountain-heather AlpineCoastal Western HemlockEngelmann Spruce -- Subalpine FirInterior Cedar -- Hemlock
Interior Douglas-firInterior Mountain-heather AlpineMontane SpruceMountain Hemlock
Ponderosa PineSpruce -- Willow -- BirchSub-Boreal Pine -- SpruceSub-Boreal Spruce

Characteristics and Range Although fairly drab and non-descript in appearance, the Eastern Phoebe is a familiar bird to many people in the eastern United States and southern Canada. It frequently nests on man-made structures and its characteristic tail-bobbing and clear and distinctive 'fee-bee' song make it easily identifiable. The Eastern Phoebe breeds mainly in eastern temperate forests, westward into the Great Plains and north to the southern Boreal Forest. The range extends much farther to the west in Canada, reaching the Rocky Mountain foothills. The Eastern Phoebe winters primarily in the United States Southern Coastal Plains and eastern Mexico.

Distribution, Abundance, and Habitat The species is found almost exclusively east of the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia, primarily in the Boreal Plains Ecoprovince and northward into the Taiga Plains Ecoprovince. There were isolated Atlas records on the Interior Plateau farther west. This pattern of distribution generally matches that when The Birds of British Columbia was published, although Campbell et al. (1997) documented an isolated record from the Southern Interior Mountains Ecoprovince. Breeding west of the Rocky Mountains remains sporadic.

Within its restricted range in the province, the Eastern Phoebe is only moderately common. It was found between 350 and 880 m elevation and the highest Probability of Observation was in the Peace River lowlands of the Boreal Plains Ecoprovince, unchanged since The Birds of British Columbia was published in 1997. Similarly high PObs values were modelled only in a restricted area of the Fort Nelson River lowlands. Almost all Atlas records are from the Boreal White and Black Spruce biogeoclimatic zone.

In British Columbia, the Eastern Phoebe is found in open woodland, brushy areas, and forest edges, almost always near water during the nesting season, but post-breeding birds range more widely. Habitat use is similar elsewhere (Weeks 2011). Man-made structures, similar to those used by Barn Swallows (e.g., outbuildings, picnic shelters, bridges, etc.), are often selected for nesting sites. Phoebes and swallows have not been found nesting concurrently on the same structure (Phinney 1998), but each may use the others empty nest, after refurbishment. There is no evidence of either species usurping an occupied nest of the other (Weeks 2011). Unlike Barn Swallows, which now rarely nest on natural substrates, much of the British Columbia population of Eastern Phoebes continues to nest in natural locations such as caves, rock outcrops, riverbank overhangs and similar niches.

Conservation and Recommendations Breeding Bird Survey data suggest a long-term decrease across Canada, the causes of which are unclear (Environment Canada 2011). Acceptance of man-made structures for nesting has probably helped the Eastern Phoebe expand its breeding range into the Great Plains (Weeks 2011) and has likely bolstered populations elsewhere, including northeast British Columbia. However, demolition of old buildings and replacement of wood-beam bridges with culverts or cement bridges has reduced potential nesting sites for this species (Phinney 1998, Weeks 2011). Northeastern British Columbia has an abundance of creeks and rivers with steep overhanging banks that will continue to provide natural nesting sites for this species.

Mark Phinney

Recommended citation: Phinney, M. 2015. Eastern Phoebe in Davidson, P.J.A., R.J. Cannings, A.R. Couturier, D. Lepage, and C.M. Di Corrado (eds.). The Atlas of the Breeding Birds of British Columbia, 2008-2012. Bird Studies Canada. Delta, B.C. [14 Jul 2024]

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