Garden News Blog

Birds of Brooklyn: Eastern Phoebe

The American robin used to be considered the first sign of spring in the New York area, but climate change now allows robins to overwinter here. As a result, seeing a robin in January, February, or March no longer has the significance that it once had. Enter the eastern phoebe!

The eastern phoebe is a small flycatcher that feeds primarily on insects, and insects in the Northeast become active as soon as warmth and sunlight end their winter hibernation. The phoebe is one of the first birds to migrate north to take advantage of this situation. They usually arrive in the New York City area in mid-March after mild winters, but after cold, snowy winters like this one, they show up a bit later. The first one of this year was spotted in Greenwood Cemetery a few days ago. Expect to start seeing more eastern phoebes around this week and next, just as spring arrives. It is a plump, grayish-brown bird with an off-white breast that perches upright on fence posts and in small trees and shrubs. You might see one fly out, capture its food on the wing, and then return to its perch.

You can tell the eastern phoebe from other flycatchers by its habit of pumping its tail a few times just after landing on its perch. The phoebe also calls its own name with a song that sounds something like “FEE-be.” It breeds on eastern Long Island and in areas north and west of the city, and it is a very common migrant at BBG. When you walk through the Garden and see or hear an eastern phoebe, you’ll know that winter has passed and we are ready for the new life that spring brings.

The Birds of Brooklyn series looks at some of the most familiar and fascinating birds that call Kings County their habitat.

Joe Giunta has led bird walks for the Nature Conservancy and the South Fork Natural History Society and taught a beginning birding course for Summer Fest. He has birded extensively in the U.S., Panama, Belize, Venezuela, and Costa Rica.

    Discussion

  • Laura Goldman March 14, 2018

    Contrary to the statement on your website, robins do not winter in my neighborhood in Queens, so it was most definitely a sign of spring when I saw my first one last week. Yesterday one was huddled in the bare branches of my lilac bush during the snowstorm and he looked very unhappy!

  • Mary Ross March 2, 2018

    I’m new to bird feeding in my Brooklyn backyard. Recently I’ve spotted an owl, (2 occasions), unfortunately not photographed. Has anyone else had this experience?

  • Joseph Giunta March 30, 2015

    Over this last weekend, March 28–29, many phoebes migrated through our area. Brooklyn Botanic Garden reported 5, Prospect Park, 23, Greenwood Cemetery, 25 and close-by Hempstead Lake State Park an amazing 50.

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Image, top of page:
Eastern Phoebe
The eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) is the new harbinger of spring. This flycatcher arrives in the New York area in mid-March when the weather warms and insects get more active. Photo by Cephas.