From a Distance


Casting an Eye


Do you see that little black bird sitting on the deck at the edge of the pool? She’s rather tiny in this shot. Here on the right is a close-up of my dear Black Phoebe.

I’ve watched that bird for thirty years or more, not the same exact bird of course. I do not think they live that long. But a bird just like it through spring, summer, autumn, and winter. Day in and day out, week by month by year. I finally determined to find out as much about that creature as I could…within the reach of my fingertips, of course.

It’s rather too tricky for me to identify the entire Taxonomic rank of this little bird, but suffice it to say, it’s from the Tyrant Flycatcher family, which is the largest Family of birds in the world.

Tyrant Flycatcher? Funny name, right? Almost an oxymoron. Flies are so low and tyrants are so high.



Today, Tyrant has a negative connotation to say the least. Originally, though, the Greek word, Tyrannos, simply meant absolute ruler. A sovereign. It harkened back to The Titans, of course, who were the original Greek Gods, the ones who preceded all the Gods of Mount Olympus.

Phoebe Flying 3


To get back to my little bird…the Genus of these birds that inhabit the U.S. is called Phoebes. Phoebe was a Titan. Clear connection. The goddess Phoebe is certainly birdlike in this 19th Century depiction of her.

Phoebe is identified as radiant, bright, prophetic, oracular.

chris_black phoebe


Well, I’m not so sure my little bird can tell the future, but what I am sure of is that if she sits patiently in the radiant morning or in the bright sunbeams that stream through my ash tree in the early dusk, she will just as assuredly find her breakfast or dinnertime meal as if it had been pre-ordained.

My particular Species of Phoebe is called Sayornis Nigricans, whose name was given to it by the American naturalist, Thomas Say (say for Say, ornis for bird, and nigricans meaning blackish. Sayornis Nigricans).

Whew! All that for the little darling of a bird who sits so patiently, ever poised for the slightest, and to me invisible, movement in the air that is her next insect meal.

D300 Mather Lake Birding


It’s hard for me to catch her in flight with my camera or as she readies herself, tilting her head to locate an insect gliding above the surface of the pool and then darting after it in a series of rapid wing-beats, snatching it mid-air and then alighting back on the edge of the pool. She’s a snappy flyer as you can see here in someone else’s photo.



Dear Phoebe is, I admit, a bit tyrannical in her nature. I’ve seen her aggressively defend her territory from much larger birds. She is indeed the master of her kingdom. It’s a little kingdom, true, my small pebble-bottomed pool, but it is her kingdom nevertheless, and she lords over it regally. No wonder a nickname for these birds is King Bird.

Can you guess how much Phoebe weighs? About a half an ounce or a tad more. Shockingly little for a Queen isn’t it? She’s also short, only six inches long from stem to stern.

I keep calling her a “she” because I want to, but actually both the female and male of this species have identical plumage…mostly black with a white belly and white accents when her wings are extended. I’ve read that the irises of her eyes are brown, but I, alas, have never gotten that close to her.

Phoebe nest


I’ve never seen her nests, either, which I understand are open cup nests and are often placed under a cliff or bridge, cemented with mud. Nor have I seen her chicks trailing after her, calling out to her to slow down, to wait for them. She, herself, sings a song that is a repeated tee-hee, tee ho, tee-hee, tee-ho. Mostly, though, she is silent, silent as she waits for her next tasty morsel to zoom by.

And I? Yes, I am silent, too, as I stand in my kitchen, glancing through the window each morning or in the twilight, looking for my Black Phoebe on the pool edge. Phoebe, as you may know, was associated with the moon, and her grandson, Apollo, was associated with the sun. Morning and night. My Black Phoebe spans them both.

If I don’t see her, I worry a bit. I worry because I know that all Phoebes are sedentary…they are not migratory birds in this SoCal climate. So if she is not in my yard, then where is she? Has she gone to my neighbor’s pool? Can she really be that fickle after all?

I don’t think she is. She will return, she will come back to me. I will wait, I will watch. If not tomorrow, then maybe the day after that. I will stay on the alert. It’s the least I can do for a goddess.

Perhaps I should call out to her, tee-hee, tee ho, tee-hee, tee ho, but I am not descended from Titans and surely my voice will sound forlorn in the gathering darkness and she will know I am unworthy of her.





2 Responses to My Dear Black Phoebe

  1. Alison Bardo says:

    I just love everything about your article. They jaunty way in which it was written. Honestly – just everything about it!
    I had a similar experience this afternoon looking out my kitchen window at my pool and I observed a Phoebe. That prompted me to look it up and I found your article. Very nice; thank you so much for sharing that and I hope she always returns !

    • Frank Z. says:


      I’m delighted the piece resonated with you. Thanks for your comment. It occurs to me that you might find my memoir, Passage From England, enjoyable to your reading tastes. The book is available on Amazon in paper and kindle versions. I’ve recently reduced the price to get more readers who will, perhaps, suggest it to their friends and network…viral marketing at its best!

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