|Black phoebes are year-round residents in So. California. Photo by J.J. Meyer|
A friendly pair of black phoebes became year-round residents of our yard a few years ago. Most mornings I can hear their shrill chirps before I’m even out of bed.
They often sit on the backs of our patio chairs that afford a direct view into our kitchen window. When really impatient they’ve been known to hover in front of it and even tap on the glass to get my attention. A string of sharp chirps generally continues until I come out with mealworms. Sometimes I think I’m being scolded for taking too long.
Lately, only one bird has been visiting. It repeatedly gathers a couple of mealworms in its bill then heads out of the yard in the same direction each time. It’s clear the pair is nesting, the second time this season.
Black phoebes are monomorphic, meaning that there are no differences in the physical characteristics between males and females. These small songbirds are mostly black or dark sooty gray with a white belly. They have a large head and often show a slight crest. Juvenile plumage shows a hint of brown with cinnamon wing bars and rump.
Common throughout California, black phoebes are from the family of tyrant flycatchers and are often found near water, where they skim the surface for insects. As the term flycatcher implies, they often sit on a fixed perch then dart out to catch insects on the fly. They pump their tails up and down continuously when perched, seemingly in rhythm with their chirps. Because they can perform incredible aerial maneuvers, it makes them fun to watch.
They’re very territorial and often remain year-round in an area with an established food source. They build mud nests under the eaves of buildings, bridges and other protected shelters. The female lays three to five eggs then incubates them for 15-18 days. Both parents tend the nestlings. The male often continues to feed the young after fledging while the female re-nests. Once the babies are deemed old enough to fend for themselves, the parents will aggressively run them out of their territory.
Because black phoebes are insect eaters, they do not visit seed feeders. But you can attract them to your yard by offering live mealworms. Start by placing a few in a dish out in an open area where they can be easily seen on a flyby. Live mealworms can be purchased at many nature and pet supply stores. And don't use pesticides, if you'd like to attract insect-eating birds to your yard.