Note: gray back and rufous belly.
  • Note: gray back and rufous belly.

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Say's Phoebe

Sayornis saya
Members of this diverse group make up more than half of the bird species worldwide. Most are small. However their brains are relatively large and their learning abilities are greater than those of most other birds. Passerine birds are divided into two suborders, the suboscines and the oscines. Oscines are capable of more complex song, and are considered the true songbirds. In Washington, the tyrant flycatchers are the only suboscines; the remaining 27 families are oscines.
Unlike most passerines found in North America, flycatchers are suboscines. Suboscines have a simpler syrinx (voice box) than the oscines (songbirds), and hence have less-developed and less-elaborate songs. Their song is innate, and does not contain a learned component. The flycatchers are the only suboscine passerines found in North America north of Mexico. Nearly all suboscines (and all Tyrannidae) are native to the New World, and they are much more numerous in the tropics, where several other families occur in addition to the Tyrannidae. Flycatchers are named for their foraging style. They sit quietly on a perch and dart out to grab a flying insect from the air, and then return to their perch to wait for the next meal to fly by. Many also forage by hovering next to foliage or over the ground. Most have a distinct, upright posture and a slight crest. They have small feet as they do not typically walk or run on the ground. Most flycatchers are monogamous. The female generally builds the nest, incubates the eggs, and broods the young, although both parents feed the young. Flycatchers of the genus Empidonax pose many identification challenges for birders. Range, habitat, vocalizations, and behavior must all be taken into account to distinguish between members of this group.
Fairly common summer east. Rare west and winter east.

    General Description

    Say's Phoebes are medium-sized, gray-brown flycatchers with salmon-pink bellies and solid black tails and bills. In flight, very pale, translucent, outer wing-feathers are just visible. The juvenile has salmon-colored wing-bars.


    Open-country birds, Say's Phoebes are found in steppe and agricultural habitats in eastern Washington, especially treeless areas with cliffs and other sites for nesting.


    Like other phoebes, Say's Phoebes bob their tails. They perch on low shrubs or rocks, and dart out to grab prey from the air, the foliage, or the ground. They can often be seen hovering low over fields looking for prey.


    Say's Phoebes' primary diet is insects. They eat a number of terrestrial insects as well the typical flying variety.


    Pairs are monogamous and nest on solid structures--natural or artificial. Natural nesting substrates include rocky outcroppings, crevices, cliffs, and tree cavities. Nests have also been found on such man-made structures as bridges, barn rafters, crossbeams, and eaves. The nest is an open cup made of grass, moss, spider webs, and other material, but usually does not include mud, a material common in the nests of other phoebe species. Generally, the female builds the nest on her own, and then incubates four to five eggs for 12 to 15 days. Both parents help feed the young, which leave the nest at 14 to 16 days. Pairs typically raise one or two broods a season.

    Migration Status

    This hardy, medium-distance migrant is one of the earliest breeders to return to eastern Washington, arriving in the region as early as late February. They begin to head south to wintering grounds in the southwestern United States in August and continue into September.

    Conservation Status

    Say's Phoebes have increased slightly but not statistically significantly in numbers in Washington since 1966, although their numbers declined in many parts of the western United States until 1991. Recent studies have shown that this downward trend appears to have reversed, and increases have been recorded range-wide. Because they nest readily in man-made structures, they appear to adapt to changes in the landscape as long as foraging areas are free of disturbances.

    When and Where to Find in Washington

    During the breeding season they can be found throughout the Columbia Basin, to the foothills of the Blue Mountains, and up into the broad river valleys of the northeastern corner of the state. They are most conspicuous during the beginning of the breeding season in March and April when they call actively. Wintering birds can be found throughout eastern Washington, especially along the Snake and Columbia Rivers where single birds occur every few years. They are uncommon to rare in the western Washington lowlands during migration, in March.

    Abundance Code DefinitionsAbundance

    C=Common; F=Fairly Common; U=Uncommon; R=Rare; I=Irregular
    Pacific Northwest Coast
    Puget Trough RR
    North Cascades
    West Cascades
    East CascadesRRUUUUUUURRR
    Okanogan RCCCCCFU
    Canadian Rockies UUUUUUU
    Blue Mountains RUUUUU
    Columbia PlateauRRUFFFFFURRR

    Washington Range Map

    North American Range Map

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    Federal Endangered Species ListAudubon/American Bird Conservancy Watch ListState Endangered Species ListAudubon Washington Vulnerable Birds List

    View full list of Washington State's Species of Special Concern