Eastern Phoebe & Wood-Pewee
The Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe), is a familiar species to most in our area, often found building its nest of mud and moss under the eaves of houses and other buildings, especially near water. This bird, though not at all brightly colored, is a conspicuous one, not only because of its tendency to live near people, but its habit of perching in the open to wait for an insect to fly by, at which point it flits out to try to catch the insect with a snap of its bill. The phoebe has a lesser-known cousin easily confused with it, the Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens).
The Wood-Pewee is, as its name suggests, largely a bird of the woodlands (especially deciduous woodlands), and as such is not as easily seen as the Phoebe, but will also often stay on a perch with a good view of the surrounding area to flycatch, and can stand out from the surrounding vegetation more when they do. Wood-Pewees nest in trees, often quite high up in them, and usually not close to houses.
These two species look very similar, but have several good characteristics that can be used to distinguish them. Both species are smallish (6-7 inches long), with drab grayish upperparts (with a darker gray on the wings, cap, and tail), thin, sharp bills, and lighter upperparts, lightest on the belly. The most striking difference between the two species is a behavioral one. The Phoebe flicks its tail in a kind of “wagging” motion when perched, and does this often enough that it can often be immediately identified by this action. Perched Wood-Pewees do not wag their tails.
Voice is another very useful clue. The Phoebe is named for its sneezy, unmelodic song, which does sound a bit like the bird is saying “FEE-bee! (pause) Fee-BEE? (pause) FEE-bee! (pause)” etc., with the emphasis alternated between song phrases. The Wood-Pewee gives a whistled, pure “Pee-a-wee?” and sometimes a shorter “Pee-urr” with a similar whistled tone. The Wood-Pewee’s vocalizations also tend to be uttered less frequently than the Phoebe’s, so that the effect is more that of someone giving only a laconic remark now and then, where a singing Phoebe sounds like it’s having a rather animated conversation with itself.
There are also a few subtle differences in coloration. A close look at a Wood-Pewee’s bill will reveal a yellowish-orange lower mandible contrasting with the blackish upper mandible, whereas the Phoebe’s bill is all dark. The Wood-Pewee also has a thin white eye-ring, lacking in the Phoebe. Finally, Wood-Pewees have two whitish wing-bars (buffy in young birds), which adult Phoebes lack. Juvenile Phoebes, however, can show two faint wing-bars—so if it’s possible you’re looking at a young bird (which are generally only present from mid-summer through fall), it’s best to use this character with some caution.