Before an etymological search for the origins of the bird name phoebe, I suspected it was related to a deity from Greek mythology, or to one of Jupiter’s moons in some labyrinthine way. As it turns out, it is an onomatopoeic appellation, based on the Eastern Phoebe’s song, which has been variously transcribed as “fee-ah-bee,” or “whee-bee.”

Bevor ich mich dranmachte, die Etymologie für den englischen Vogelnamen “Phoebe” (Phoebetyrann im Deutschen) herauszufinden, vermutete ich, daß er von einer griechischen Göttin abgeleitet, oder über verschlungene Wege mit einem der Monde Jupiters verbunden war. Es stellte sich aber heraus, daß es sich um eine lautmalerische Bezeichnung handelt, basierend auf den Lauten, die der Weißbauch-Phoebetyrann von sich gibt.

North America has three species of phoebes. All share the genus name Sayornis, in honor of Thomas Say (1787-1834). This biologist is best known for his myriad entomological discoveries, but he was also the first who, while accompanying the 1819/20 expedition through the American West led by Major Stephen Long, described one of these handsome birds, which would later be called Say’s Phoebe (Sayornis saya, a double tribute). Sadly, Mr. Say did not get to enjoy his avian fame. He died of typhoid fever, twenty years before the genus name was assigned in 1854 by French naturalist Charles Lucien Bonaparte (a nephew of the (in)famous Emperor).

In Nordamerika gibt es drei Arten von Phoebetyrannen. Alle haben den Gattungsnamen Sayornis gemein, zu Ehren von Thomas Say. Dieser Wissenschaftler, der zwischen 1787 und 1834 lebte, ist am besten für seine zahlreichen entomologischen Entdeckungen bekannt. Doch war er auch der erste, der einen dieser attraktiven Vögel beschrieb, als er als Biologe eine von Major Stephen Long geleitete Expedition durch den amerikanischen Westen in den Jahren 1819-20 begleitete. Der Zimtbauch-Tyrann wurde später nach ihm benannt (Sayornis saya, ein doppelter Tribut). Leider war es Herrn Say nicht vergönnt, seinen Ruhm zu genießen, denn er verstarb an Typhus, und zwar 20 Jahre bevor der Gattungsname 1854 vom Naturkundler Charles Lucien Bonaparte eingeführt wurde (bei ihm handelte es sich übrigens um einen Neffen des berühmt-berüchtigen Kaisers).

Phoebes belong to the group of flycatchers. As the name implies, they feed predominantly on insects. After perching upright and scanning the environment, they sally forth to catch their prey in midair before returning to the same or a nearby resting spot. In Colorado, Say’s and Black Phoebes are typically seen only during the summer, though a few linger year-round, especially in the southern part of the state. Eastern Phoebes are rare visitors in western states. I love encountering all of them, and look forward to their return. Any day now!

Phoebetyrannen gehören zu den Fliegenfängern. Wie der Name andeutet, ernähren sie sich vorwiegend von Insekten. Sie hocken aufrecht und beobachten ihr Umfeld, um plötzlich loszufliegen und ihre Beute einzufangen, und danach wieder zum selben oder einem nahegelegenen Ruheplatz zurückzukehren. In Colorado sind Zimtbauch- und Schwarzkopf-Phoebetyrannen typischerweise nur im Sommer zu sehen, obwohl einige das ganze Jahr lang im Staat verbleiben, besonders in südlicheren Gefilden. Weißbauch-Phoebetyrannen sind seltene Besucher in den westlichen Staaten. Begegnungen mit allen Arten machen mir immer große Freude, und ich freue mich bereits auf ihre Rückkehr, die sehr bald stattfinden könnte.

Adult Say’s Phoebe (Sayornis saya)/Zimtbauch-Phoebetyrann Adult

Juvenile Say’s Phoebes/Zimtbauch-Phoebetyrann Junge

Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans)/Schwarzkopf-Phoebetyrann

Black Phoebe/Schwarzkopf-Phoebetyrann

Eastern Phoebe, having strayed west into Colorado/Weißbauch-Phoebetyrann zu Besuch in Colorado

Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)/Weißbauch-Phoebetyrann

57 thoughts on “Phoebe

  1. I too had assumed that the origin of the name was linked somehow to ancient Greece, so I have learned something today (as I usually do, when your weekly posts appear! 🙂) I’ve seen a few of these birds during my visits to the USA, and your photos bring back some happy memories.
    I hope you are keeping safe and well in these troubled times.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Mr. P. Phoebes and other birds keep me “sane” (if there is such a thing), especially at this time, so I’m grateful for every opportunity when I can get out among them.
      Best wishes for you and Mrs. P as well.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Takami. It’s always a special present to be able to watch the nestlings fledge. I hope our phoebes will have a successful summer!
      We are concerned about the state of the world, but are otherwise ok. I hope you and your loved ones, too!
      Warm wishes,

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ich habe einmal einen davon bei unserem Cottage gesehen und er war nett genug und ist für ein Foto sitzengeblieben. Da ich ihn nicht identifizieren konnte, hat das der „Club d‘ornithologie des hautes-laurentides“ für mich gemacht.
    Schön dass du in der Zwischenzeit schon wieder welche gesehen hast!
    Viele Grüsse

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ja, es hat mich gefreut, schon einige Frühankömmlinge zu Gesicht zu bekommen, liebe Christa. Das ist ein Zeichen, daß der Frühling vor der Tür steht, und darüber freue ich mich sehr. Mal freudige Aussichten, zur Abwechslung!
      Alles Gute,

      Liked by 1 person

  3. For a number of years we always had a phoebe nest, Eastern Phoebe, on the ledge above the window to our garden shed. Last year was the first without. We missed them and their clutch but hope a pair returns this year. It’s always fun to watch them swoop across the yard to catch a bit of nourishment for the young. Fingers crossed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the lesson in Greek mythology, Steve. I have been trying to wade through the Iliad (very slowly), but still have difficulty remembering their pantheon.
      As far as the name Tyrann in German, the birds belong to the family of tyrant flycatchers (some of whom act in accordance with their name, though most are fairly friendly 😊).


  4. Wirklich so schön und besonders, weil wir in good old Germany gerade im Corona-Modus sind. Eine Woche Home-Office ist schon fast rum,…Draußen ist noch was los, manchmal sogar recht viel, weil nicht alle die Dramatik der Ansteckungs-Ketten begreifen und nicht nur alte und Menschen mit Vorerkrankungen gefährdet sind….. Die Innenstädte und Geschäfte, die keinen Versorgungsauftrag haben zum Glück nicht mehr.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Es freut mich, daß Dir die schönen Vögel gefallen haben, liebe Ira. Nicht nur in Germany seid Ihr im Coronamodus, auch hier steht alles Kopf. Es ist schwierig, optimistisch zu bleiben, aber das müssen wir versuchen.
      Ich hoffe, es geht Euch gut.
      Alles Liebe,

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. You weren’t actually wrong about that assumption–there is a Greek goddess named Phoebe–but when I was searching for the etymology of the word, I didn’t find a connection mentioned anywhere. But, as a fellow blogger pointed out, the goddess might nonetheless have influenced the spelling of the name.
      Live and learn!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Aw…I love Eastern Phoebes, and didn’t know there were other kinds. To me, phoebes seem so “organized and together”. I love to watch them sitting up so still on a branch at the pond, and then suddenly swooping out. Where would we be without birds?

    Liked by 1 person

    • They ARE adorable, Pooja, and I hope the Phoebe pair will have more offspring this year. It’s wonderful to watch the nestlings grow until, finally, they are too big for the nest, but still want to be fed by their parents. 🙂


  6. The flycatcher I’m most familiar with is the scissor-tailed, which is migratory here. Their behavior is similar — a quick, short flight to catch a snack, and then a return to the same spot on a wire or fence. I see that the eastern Phoebe is a non-breeding resident here. I’ll have to watch for them next fall and winter.

    “Phoebe” as a name reminds me not of Greek but of Latin. My high school Latin teacher was named Phoebe. I’m surprised I can’t remember her last name, but I can see her as clearly as I can see my coffee cup. She was a tiny thing: almost bird-like. She seemed ancient to us, probably because of her small size and gray hair, but she could keep even a group of half-bored high school students in line with only a glance, or an invitation to decline a word in front of the class.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Great post! I saw both Say’s and Black Phoebes when we traveled to Las Vegas. They were lifers for me and Frank. We almost always see Eastern Phoebes on our hikes here in Florida. Quite common! They are beautiful birds and their song is quite enticing to listen to. 🥰

    Liked by 1 person

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