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2003 - Life-size sculpture honoring heroes of St. Francis Dam disaster unveiled in Santa Paula [video]

Commentary by Evelyne Vandersande
| Thursday, Jan 23, 2014

evelynevandersande_mugA friend was complaining about bird identification a few weeks ago. “I go outside and I can recognize a scrub jay and a mourning dove, but that’s about it. There are all those little birds fluttering about, and I have no clue what there are. How do I start to learn about them and recognize one from the other?”

Of course, always a good way to learn about birds is to come to a bird walk. There is one at Placerita Canyon State Park on the second Saturday of the month from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., and another one at the Castaic Lake Recreation Area on the first Saturday of the month at 8 a.m. It is a good way to learn the basics. Do not be intimidated. All levels of birders come to those walks. Just bring binoculars and a field guide.

A field guide is just a bird book with pictures explaining what the bird looks like, where you usually find it, and a few facts about its behavior. If you do not have a bird book, I recommend buying one with drawings of the birds versus photos of the birds, because they are a bit easier to use for identification. The artist makes sure all of the important specifics of the birds are easy to see, while a picture is just a fleeting instant snapshot of a bird.  Sometimes the picture does not clearly show every little detail, such as a spot under the belly or bars on a wing.

blackphoebeIf you just want to stay in your backyard and don’t want to look for a bird that’s just passing though in migration, or one that’s difficult to identify, I will choose something easy to see: the black phoebe.

It has a pretty name and it is here year-round. It is a good-sized bird, a bit chunky, larger than a house finch, and has only two colors: black with a white belly. So that is easy to remember. Male and female look the same, and both sing.

In this case, knowing its behavior makes the identification easier: They pump their tails up and down incessantly when perched.

They also have a small crest often worn flat on their head, but it gives them a funny look like they are wearing a beret.

One main reason you will see this bird so easily in your garden, on the paseo or in every city park is because of one crucial feature: the sprinkler system. Actually, often you can see a black phoebe perched on a sprinkler head, due to its need for water.

It belongs to the flycatcher family, which is the largest bird family on Earth. It is an insectivore, has a straight and thin beak, and won’t come to your bird feeder. It waits on a perch about 7 feet off the ground before flying out and catching its prey in the air.

Black phoebes eat bees, wasps, flies, beetle bugs, grasshoppers, spiders, etc. They can even catch small minnows from the surface of a pond. They feed mostly during the day but can also catch insects in the evening around an electric light.

BlackPhoebeInFlightThey are not shy and sometimes come really close to inspect what you are doing. When I put my bird cages outside, one often comes to see what is going on and perches on the back of a garden chair, checking us out for a good, long while.

They can be found in the chaparral, too, but they need to have a source of water because their nests are made of mud. Black phoebes are plentiful, and their number is actually increasing, based on bird surveys. Why is that? Human developments have helped them find good sites to build their nests under the eaves of buildings and under culverts and bridges.

Black phoebes are monogamous. Couples stay together during the nesting season as long as five years. They go their own way during the rest of the year.

They reuse nests from prior seasons and often raise 2 broods.

They have a neat courting ritual where the male makes a display flight in front of the female, fanning his tail and doing all kind of zig-zagging and spiraling to show off. At the end, and to impress her even more, it goes to the tree top and starts to sing with gusto. If she is in agreement, the female will decide where the nest will be built while the male will show her a few spots by hovering in front of different places.

The nest is made of mud lined with plant fibers, usually attached to a wall, taking advantage of an existing roof above for protection. The female does all of the construction herself or refurbishes her previous nest.

black phoebeThey will chase other birds from their nest if they are small, such as house finches, white-crowned sparrows and yellow-rumped warblers. If they are big like Cooper hawks or American kestrels, they will sound an alarm call and flee. On the other hand, they won’t shy away from larger predators such as coyotes, cats or ground squirrels. They will attack them swooping down and snapping their bill at them to deter them.

Why do we seem to see more black phoebes in the winter? They are resident in Southern California and do not migrate. This indicates that some individuals come from the north and go south to spend the winter with us. Also, some black phoebes move to higher elevations only during the mating season and then go back down into the valley for the rest of the year.

Why the sweet name of black phoebe? It describes the common song of the Eastern phoebe, a close relative. The black phoebe also has a sweet little 2-note call – “tee-hee” – and you will want to hear that.

Go outside. If you see a black-and-white bird, a little larger than a finch, close to your sprinkler head with a funny little patch of feathers on its head, you have it made. You made a perfect identification of a black phoebe.


Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center for 28 years. She lives in Newhall.


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1 Comment

  1. Kathy McAlpine says:

    This is my favorite bird to watch. When they fly, it’s like watching Woodstock in Charlie Brown cartoons fly. There are tons of them at Santa Clarita Central Park every summer on the fences near the baseball fields.

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