Black Phoebes, a New Year-Round Portland Resident?

by Brodie Cass Talbott, Educator and Trips Associate

Arriving at Whitaker Ponds on an overcast January afternoon, I soon hear a now familiar sound. “Pip! Pip!” It pauses, then starts again, this time nonstop as it seems to circle the pond. Scanning from the shoreline, the bird grabs my attention as it zips from perch to perch, with its oversized dark head and fluffy crest, and diminutive tuxedo, black on the back and breast, with a white belly. Black Phoebes are instantly recognizable, and immediately loveable. They are at once graceful and playful, energetic and dignified.

A photo of a Black Phoebe perched on a slim branch.
Black Phoebe, photo by Haley Crews

And increasingly, in Portland, a common sight. A few scant years ago, these were considered a rarity. The annual Portland Christmas Bird Count, which was held on January 2 this year, does a great job showing the change. For the last three years, we have had six to seven individuals each year. For the previous 93 years of the count, we had four. Total. 

Walking to the back pond of Whitaker, another sound grabbed my ear. “Pitee… pitew… pitee… pitew…” Not the energetic call of the bird I heard on the front pond, but a song from a second bird! Presumably the male of what is now a breeding pair in the park, this bird singing, and apparently defending territory. And highlighting another big change in their range. Whereas birds over much of the Willamette Valley for the last decade were mostly found in the winter, thought to be reverse migrants from their normal southern breeding range, over the last few years, many seem to have simply stayed, found a mate, and are now year-round breeding birds at many of our local areas, especially along the Columbia Slough.

So what accounts for this rapid change? Climate change is the obvious guess, as warmer temperatures have meant more insects in even the coldest months, allowing these birds to survive the winter. But the species has seen a range expansion everywhere, it turns out, again because of human effect. Black Phoebes traditionally nested on large rocks or cliffs, but the increasing human construction of buildings has created perfect habitat for their cup nests, carefully constructed of mud. In many places their nests are found almost exclusively on human construction, similar to Barn Swallows.

Photo by glorietta13/flickr

So where can you enjoy these dapper acrobats? You can look for them anywhere that has smaller bodies of water, including small rivers, wetlands, and wooded ponds. As noted, the Columbia Slough now hosts many pairs across its course, but they are also well-known at Force Lake in North Portland, as well as Fernhill Wetlands and the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge, and have recently jumped into Washington, where they appeared to have bred at Ridgefield for the first time in 2021. The list keeps growing!