Rick Lewis is a Golden Gate Audubon member and contributing photographer to several Bay Area environmental organizations.
Meet the Black Phoebe
The black phoebe is an active and energetic bird in the tyrant flycatcher family. They are found in many Alameda locales. Although often described as being found near water, the water may not be obvious or even considered by the casual passerby as a significant part of the landscape. The presence of water is necessary for their nest building that consists of mud and plant fibers. A friend of mine calls this small, distinct, black-and-white bird “the Tuxedo Bird.” It can be found in residential neighborhoods, parks, fields, schools, riparian habitats and near the ocean.
They are very successful hunters. Perhaps not as thrilling as the larger raptors, they are, nonetheless, very efficient at catching prey. I watched one bird, over several hours, catch small fish, various insects and two large dragonflies, all devoured within seconds of capture. Sayornis nigricans, the black phoebe, eats bees, wasps, flies, beetles, grasshoppers, damselflies, dragonflies, termites and spiders.
So, having a phoebe in the yard is good insect control! They are highly entertaining, lively, quick and superb aerial gymnastics.
Calls are usually of the “tsip” or “chip” variety. The phoebes in my neighborhood regularly vocalize and I can often hear them before I see them. But with their distinct coloration and flycatcher behavior (darting from perch to ground to air to perch) they are easily identifiable.
During the recent rains, upon returning from a shopping trip, I watched one from my car window for several minutes. The bird was stationed at the top of the gutter and made the short hop from top to bottom often, each time bringing up an earthworm that had been flooded out into the open. Amazing display of conservation of energy. Appeared to be a large calorie infusion in a short time! Apparently, earthworms are considered a super food, no wonder many birds enjoy eating them.
There were 407 black phoebes counted in the 2019 Oakland Christmas Bird Count. The bird ranges from southern Oregon through California into Mexico and further south into South America. It is considered a year-round resident through most of its range. Black phoebes are primarily monogamous and can raise two broods per season. A typical clutch is 1 to 6 eggs, incubation is 15 to 17 days. Young are fed by both parents.
Because their diet is mainly insects and the necessity for water and mud to build nests the indiscriminate use of pesticides could have a devastating effect on these otherwise highly successful passerines.