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Species Spotlight

Say's Phoebe

By Doug Moore

   If you have spent time around the Proctor Parking Area, undoubtedly you’ve seen Say’s Phoebe. These elegant flycatchers have used Proctor as home base for as long as I can recall. Calling from prominent perches, sallying acrobatically for flying insects or nurturing yet another brood of nestlings, these birds head the canyon “meet and greet committee.” Although other canyon birds are more colorful or exotic, none are more reliable, observable wild ambassadors for introducing visitors to the nature of Madera Canyon.

   Say’s Phoebes, Sayornis saya, are members of the largest family of birds in North America, the Tyrant Flycatchers. Generally a highly migratory species ranging from southern Mexico to Alaska, in the mild climate of southeast Arizona individuals may remain locally year-round, becoming resident. Preferring dry, open to semi-open terrain of prairies and ranchlands, the semi-desert grassland surrounding Proctor with scattered mesquite and shrubs fills their niche requirements perfectly.

Slender, medium-sized birds, about 7½ inches long, Say’s Phoebes are distinctively colored in subtle hues. Like most other flycatcher species, males and females appear alike. The head, back, and wings are light brownish-gray. The throat, breast and wing-bars are very pale gray; belly and undertail coverts pale rufous. The distinctive tail is black, as are the bill and feet. When spread during flight, the remiges (primary, secondary and tertial flight feathers) of the wings appear pale and translucent.

   Exhibiting classic flycatcher behavior, Say’s Phoebes perch upright at the tops of small trees, bushes, and posts, darting suddenly into the air in pursuit of flying insects. They are energetic, graceful fliers that swoop, twist and flare agilely to chase down erratically-flying prey. Primarily insect-eaters, Say’s Phoebes have been observed foraging on other foods, like berries, when insects are scarce or unavailable.

   Say’s Phoebes weave dense cup-shaped nests of grass and wool on dry, sheltered, elevated ledges, often on buildings. At Proctor, the phoebes used to nest up under the eaves on the north side of the Education Shed, but this nest was destroyed in the Proctor Fire. The past two springs, nesting was attempted on the support beams beneath the Proctor Ramada, but high winds blew the nests to the ground. In April, the resident pair built a second nest on the seemingly precarious narrow metal beam right above the women’s restroom door. Despite bathroom traffic and a slew of birders, the tolerant and resilient adults hatched three chicks. All three successfully fledged the last week of April and could be seen following their parents, begging for food. It will be interesting to see if the adults will try for a second brood during this year’s monsoon.

Photo by Doug Moore