- Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution
- Breeding Habitat
- Population Abundance
- Literature Cited
A regular breeding species and migrant, rare in winter. The Eastern Phoebe was a common species during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (MNBBA).
Broadly distributed across central and eastern North America, the Eastern Phoebe occurs as far north as the southern regions of the Yukon and the Northwest Territories and as far southeast as Texas and portions of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. The species does not attain high breeding densities anywhere within its range, but overall it is most abundant east of the Great Plains (Figure 1).
Assigned a Continental Concern Score of 8/20 by Partners In Flight.
A migrant throughout much of its range, the phoebe is a year-round resident in the southeast. Winters are spent along the southern Atlantic Coast, the Gulf Coast, and in eastern Mexico.
An aerial insectivore that hawks flying insects.
An open cup with a base of mud and then built up with leaves, grasses, and moss. Although natural sites, such as steep stream banks or rocky outcrops, are still used, it is common to find nests built on human structures such as bridges, culverts, or buildings.
Roberts (1932) considered the phoebe a common summer resident throughout the state. Commenting on its close and long-standing association with people, Roberts wrote:
Nearly everyone knows this plainly dressed little bird by one name or another, as it comes so familiarly about man’s habitations and mingles its home activities so intimately with those of its host. There is scarcely a farm or dwelling in the country or a deserted shack in the forest that has not its pair of sociable, tail-wagging Phoebes.
Even the long list of nesting records submitted by friends and colleagues throughout the state were a testament to the ease of documenting nesting efforts by a bird often sharing one’s home as a nesting abode. All total, Roberts had breeding evidence (both confirmed and inferred nesting accounts) from 17 counties as well as from Cass Lake, Itasca State Park, and Leech Lake. The records were confined primarily to the forested regions of the state, including the Tallgrass Aspen Parklands Province, and stretched from Houston County in the southeast to Kittson and Roseau Counties in the northwest, Lake of the Woods in north-central Minnesota, and Carlton and St. Louis Counties in the northeast. At the time, the absence of records from the southwest or extreme northeast regions suggested that the species was relatively uncommon in the open grasslands and sparsely settled forest landscapes.
Green and Janssen (1975) described the phoebe as a summer resident breeding in all regions of the state. Janssen (1987) provided additional details, noting that the species was most common in northern Minnesota, decreasing in abundance as one moved south, and “scarce to absent in large portions of the south-central and southwestern regions south of the Minnesota River.” He included a distribution map that identified 42 counties where nesting had been confirmed since 1970, including 3 in the southwestern corner of the state (Lac qui Parle, Pipestone, and Yellow Medicine). Hertzel and Janssen (1998) would later add 12 more counties to the list. More than half of the counties without confirmed nesting records (18) were south of the Minnesota River.
Field surveys conducted by the Minnesota Biological Survey beginning in the late 1980s, further documented the species’ statewide distribution. Among the documented 300 breeding season locations, multiple records are widely dispersed across southwestern, south-central, and southeastern Minnesota (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2016).
During the MNBBA, observers reported 2,809 Eastern Phoebe records from 37.6% (1,789/4,763) of the surveyed atlas blocks and from 49.9% (1,167/2,337) of the priority blocks. Breeding evidence was documented in 651 blocks (Figures 2 and 3; Table 1). There was at least one record from each of Minnesota’s 87 counties and breeding evidence from 81 counties (one block with breeding evidence straddled both Renville and Redwood Counties). The 6 counties without breeding evidence were all in west-central and southwest Minnesota: Big Stone, Chippewa, Lyon, Nobles, Pipestone, and Traverse. Of the counties with confirmed nesting records, 29 were new to the list published by Hertzel and Janssen (1998). Although widely distributed across the state, the Eastern Phoebe was least abundant in the Prairie Parkland Ecological Province.
The predicted distribution map for the Eastern Phoebe, which combines MNBBA data with data on climate, habitat, landscape context, and detectability, demonstrated the species’ close association with major rivers, especially in southeastern Minnesota (Figure 4). A species primarily of the Eastern Broadleaf Forest and the southern and western regions of the Laurentian Mixed Forest, the map predicts the species absence from some of the most densely forested landscapes of Cook and Lake Counties..
The overall distribution of the phoebe may have changed little in the past one hundred years. Nevertheless, today it likely is more common across Minnesota’s agricultural and northern forested landscapes. Historically the species’ distribution and abundance was limited by the availability of natural nest sites, including rocky outcrops and ledges located near forested streams and lakeshores. Roberts’s account (1932) actually included a photo of three phoebe nests that were placed within the crevices of Barn Bluff in Red Wing, Minnesota, in the early 1900s. He also noted the species’ use of rocky ledges along the North Shore of Lake Superior. But European settlement, and the subsequent construction of buildings and bridges, provided more nesting opportunities for this adaptable species. As settlement progressed to the west and north of its breeding range, farmsteads and riparian corridors also provided the woodlands, water, and nearby structures that the species requires. This facilitated its expansion into the northern Great Plains and along the Gulf Coast of the southeastern United States (Weeks 2011).
*Note that the definition of confirmed nesting of a species is different for Breeding Bird Atlas projects, including the definition used by the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, compared with a more restrictive definition used by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. For details see the Data Methods Section.