Sayornis saya saya

Status:  Common regular spring migrant west, uncommon central, rare east. Fairly common regular breeder west and south, rare casual east. Common regular fall migrant west, uncommon west-central, rare casual elsewhere.

Documentation:  Specimen: UNSM ZM6369, 20 May 1900 Sioux Co.

Taxonomy:  Four subspecies were recognized by Pyle (1997), but both Clements et al (2016) and Gill and Donsker (2017) recognize only two: saya of Alaska, western Canada, western USA, to southern Mexico, and quiescens of Baja California, Mexico. Nebraska birds are saya (Rapp et al 1958).

Spring:  Mar 23, 23, 24 <<<>>> summer; Apr 6, 6, 6 <<<>>> summer Panhandle.

Earlier dates are 17 Mar 2018 Harlan Co, and 20 Mar 2017 Hall Co, and in the Panhandle 4 Apr 2015 Deuel Co, and 4 Apr 2016 Kimball Co.

Migrants occur east of the breeding range on occasion except for the southeast but are not numerous. There are about 16 reports for the southeast 23 Mar-23 May.

  •  High counts:  18 in western Banner Co 4 May 1997 and 11 in southern Kimball Co 8 May 1998.

Summer: Say’s Phoebe breeds commonly throughout the drier areas in the Panhandle and southwest, with lower numbers in the south and only sporadic breeding in the east. It is absent from the Sandhills and southeast. Distribution in the northeast has fluctuated considerably historically, extending as far east as Cedar, Polk, and Cuming Cos and south to Adams and Hamilton Cos. McClure (1946) found that in central Nebraska in the early 1940s, there were 4.6 Say’s Phoebes per Eastern Phoebe, but during periods of population decline it has been limited essentially to the Panhandle. There is some evidence that easterly nesting is sensitive to wet and dry 20-year climate cycles (Kent and Dinsmore 1996, Schukman and Wolf 2020), with easterly nesting in drier periods. It was “on the increase” in the Adams Co area in the 1920s (Jorgensen 2012) and common in central Nebraska in the early 1940s (McClure 1946); there were many summer records in the 1960s, even as far east as Cuming Co (Ducey 1988; Short 1961), and again in the 1980s and 2000s (see below).

Easternmost nesting records are from Dixon and Polk Cos. Mollhoff (2016) showed confirmed breeding during the period 2006-2011 in Cedar and Wayne Cos. At least one bird summered in southwest Dixon Co 1997-99, with sightings of single birds 28 Aug 2002, 9 Jul 2004, and 25 Aug 2011. Jorgensen (2012) summarized its occurrence in the Rainwater Basin, citing numerous records from the 1920s through the 1980s. In 2019, an adult and a nest with young was found near Kissinger Basin WMA, Clay Co on 11 July; the adult was again observed on 24 July (Jorgensen and Brenner 2019). In Polk Co, Say’s Phoebes were present each year in the period 1984-89, including confirmed breeding in 1985 (Mollhoff 2001, Williams 1985), and there were reports from Hamilton Co in 1985 (Bennett 1986) and York Co in 1986 (Bennett 1987).

Currently, breeding is regular in the Platte River Valley east only as far as Phelps Co, where an immature which may have hatched locally was seen 26 Jun 1994, a single was there 6 Jul 1996 (Grzybowski 1996) and a territorial pair, along with possibly three additional birds, were sighted in southwest Phelps Co Apr-May 2003. Singles were reported at Sumner, Dawson Co 9 Jun 2013 and in Phelps Co 13 Jun 2008. Further east, a pair appeared to be nesting on a bridge in Howard Co 8 Jul 2016.

Breeding season reports from the north-central are lacking; northernmost is of a nesting pair at the edge of the breeding range in Broken Bow, Custer Co 4 Jul 2008. The only known nesting attempt in Garden Co was unsuccessful at Crescent Lake NWR in 1980 (Williams 1980). Scattered recent breeding season reports from the eastern Sandhills and eastern Niobrara River Valley are of singles in Hooker Co 8 Jun 2010, Antelope Co 6 and 12 Jun 2010 and 28 Jul 2009, two sightings in 1982 in Brown and Cherry Cos (Brogie and Mossman 1983), Brown Co 3 and 27 Jun 2018 and 19 Jun 2020, Niobrara SP, Knox Co 12 Jun 2011, Rock Co 19 Jun 2012, Cedar Co 27 Jun 2020, and Knox Co 18 Jul 2020.

Despite fluctuating numbers and range, BBS trend analysis shows the species has increased annually by 3.20% (95% C.I.; 0.95, 5.48) during the period 1966-2015 (Sauer et al 2017).

  • Breeding Phenology:
    Nest Building: 20 Apr-5 May
    Eggs: 10 May-4 Jul (commonly double-brooded)
    Nestlings: 6 Jun-16 Jul
    Fledglings: 21 Jun-4 Jul

A pair in Kimball Co had a second clutch of two eggs 29 Jun with five fledglings from the first clutch nearby, and a nest with 3-4 young in Hitchcock Co 16 Jul was probably a second clutch (Mollhoff 2008).

Fall:  summer <<<>>> Oct 1, 1, 2

Later dates are 4 Act 2004 Hayes Co, 4 Oct 2006 Sherman Co, 6 Oct 2019 Lancaster Co, 9 Oct 2013 Cherry Co, 11 Oct 2020 Garden Co, and 17 Oct 2020 Thomas Co. There is an amazing late date 27 Dec 2013 Keith Co (Stephen J. Dinsmore, pers. comm.).

Departure is usually completed by late Sep; peak movement is late Aug-early Sep.

Say’s Phoebe is rare in fall away from the Panhandle and the west-central, with most of the few records from known breeding locations. This is especially true in the east, where there are 15 reports in the period 12 Sep-9 Oct, and even in the central, away from Lincoln Co, there are only about 20 reports, all in the period 1-30 Sep. In 2018, however, there were eight reports in the east-central 8-15 Sep, but none in the east.

  • High counts:  10 in Kimball Co 27 Aug 2006, 8 in Scotts Bluff Co 1 Sep 2001, 7 on State Line Road, Sioux Co 4 Sep 2017, and 7 on State Line Road, Kimball Co 29 Aug 2020.


BBS: Breeding Bird Survey
SP: State Park
UNSM: University of Nebraska State Museum

Literature Cited

Bennett, E.V. 1986. 1985 Nebraska nesting survey. NBR 54: 31-35.

Bennett, E.V. 1987. 1986 Nebraska nesting survey. NBR 55: 31-35.

Brogie, M.A., and M.J. Mossman. 1983. Spring and summer birds of the Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska: an annotated checklist. NBR 51: 44-51.

Clements, J. F., T. S. Schulenberg, M. J. Iliff, D. Roberson, T. A. Fredericks, B. L. Sullivan, and C. L. Wood.  The eBird/Clements checklist of birds of the world: v2016, accessed 30 January 2018.

Ducey, J.E. 1988. Nebraska birds, breeding status and distribution. Simmons-Boardman Books, Omaha, Nebraska, USA.

Gill, F., and D. Donsker (Eds). 2017. IOC World Bird List (v 7.3), accessed 30 January 2018.

Grzybowski, J.A. 1996. Southern Great Plains Region. Field Notes 50: 296-300.

Jorgensen, J.G. 2012.  Birds of the Rainwater Basin, Nebraska.  Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Kent, T.H., and J.J. Dinsmore. 1996. Birds in Iowa. Iowa City and Ames, IA: Kent and Dinsmore.

McClure, H.E. 1946. Phoebes in central Nebraska. Auk 63: 211-215.

Mollhoff, W.J. 2001. The Nebraska Breeding Bird Atlas 1984-1989. Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union Occasional Papers No. 7. Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Mollhoff, W.J. 2008. The 2007 Nebraska nest report. NBR 76: 155-165.

Mollhoff, W.J. 2016. The Second Nebraska Breeding Bird Atlas. Bull. Univ. Nebraska State Museum Vol 29. University of Nebraska State Museum, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Pyle, P. 1997. Identification Guide to North American Birds. Part I, Columbidae to Ploceidae. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas, California, USA.

Rapp, W.F. Jr., J.L.C. Rapp, H.E. Baumgarten, and R.A. Moser. 1958. Revised checklist of Nebraska birds. Occasional Papers 5, Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union, Crete, Nebraska, USA.

Sauer, J.R., D.K. Niven, J.E. Hines, D.J. Ziolkowski, Jr, K.L. Pardieck, J.E. Fallon, and W.A. Link. 2017.  The    North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966 – 2015 (Nebraska). Version 2.07. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, Maryland, USA.

Schukman, J.M. and B.O. Wolf. 2020. Say’s Phoebe (Sayornis saya), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Short, L.L., Jr. 1961. Notes on bird distribution in the central Plains. NBR 29: 2-22.

Williams, F. 1980. Southern Great Plains Region. American Birds 34: 286-288.

Williams, F. 1985. Southern Great Plains Region. American Birds 39: 319-322.

Recommended Citation

Silcock, W.R., and J.G. Jorgensen. 2021.  Say’s Phoebe (Sayornis saya). In Birds of Nebraska — Online.

Birds of Nebraska – Online

Updated 4 Jun 2021