Hotline Photos

Phoebe and House Finches Feeding the Same Chicks

28 Apr -2 May 2014
Orem, Utah

(E-mail from Kay Sullivan --  28 Apr 2014) :
(1st email)  Was wondering if this had ever been seen before....a phoebe feeding finch chicks. There is a finch nest right outside my office door (I watch the parents feed them) but this morning when I pulled up in my car, I sat and watched a phoebe (didn't catch the sex) feeding the finch babies...their mouths were open and I watched her or him insert insects in their mouths. I was surprised when I noticed that finch babies had hatched in the nest as I had seen phoebes flying from it several times previous and naturally assumed it was their nest. Thanks for reading this.....Kay Sullivan

(2nd email) ... I will bring my camera tomorrow and see if I can get some pictures. I do have a witness....she came to relieve me at lunch time and she also saw both the phoebe and the male and female finches (they look like house finches from what I can tell) feeding the fledglings. There are about five nests in a close proximity to each other (all within about 20 feet). They are built on top of light fixtures under the porch roof. I've wondered if the phoebe lost its mate or its eggs and was occupying one of those nests and is just responding to the sound of the babies cheeping. Phoebes do nest under the porch also. Hopefully it will still be going on tomorrow and I'll send you some pics! Thanks again! Kay

E-mail from Kay Sullivan --  29 Apr 2014) :

... I got my pictures! I got two great ones of the Phoebe (appears to be male) standing in the nest with a bug in its mouth and the babies with their mouths wide open, waiting. Also got pics of the male and then the female finch parents feeding the chicks also. I will send them to you when I get home from work tonight....Kay

(E-mail from Kay Sullivan --  2 May 2014) :

The first two pictures show the male feeding the babies and the female in the last two. They are clearly finch chicks...

And here is that silly phoebe. I watched him feed them all day (looks like a male to me) and suspect that he had been doing it for some time as I had seen a phoebe fly from that nest for several days....I was surprised when I found out it was actually a finch nest.
The next morning all four chicks were still in the nest when I pulled into work but when I checked on them two hours later they had flown....

Kay Sullivan

email address: 

(Response by Kris Purdy at bottom)

Photos by Kay Sullivan

General Area

...the last one was to give you an idea of the area. The closer light fixture is where the nest is. The light fixture furthest away (about 20 feet away from the first) has an active phoebe nest in it. Was unable to tell if the phoebe feeding the chicks was from that nest...there are phoebes all over the place here.

Finch Babies on light fixture (2 photos)

House Finches in nest

Phoebe feeding the finch chicks (2 photos)

Male and Female at the nest

Male House Finch feeding the chicks

Female feeding the chicks (2 photos)

(E-mail from Kristin Purdy --  3 May 2014) :

I havenít heard of the behavior, but someone has as documented it in the Sayís Phoebe species account in Cornellís Birds of North America (subscription service):

Cooperative Breeding
Intraspecific cooperative breeding is not known to occur in phoebes. However, there was 1 unusual instance of interspecific cooperative breeding involving Sayís Phoebe and Barn Swallow (Kozma and Mathews 1995). In s.-central New Mexico, a pair of Barn Swallows and a pair of Sayís Phoebes were observed sharing same nest; these pairs alternated egg-laying, incubation, and feeding of young; 2 young of each species fledged. Sayís Phoebe shows some tolerance for encroachment by other species and has been observed with other species (see Behavior: social and interspecific behavior, above).

In addition, the nest that Kay photographed looks like a Sayís Phoebe nest to me due to the coarseness of the grasses used. From both of the House Finches nests Iíve seen (one in a Christmas tree left on my deck far too long into the spring, and another in an ornamental spruce for sale at Cactus and Tropicals in SLC), and from the description in Baicich and Harrison, 2005, House Finches use much finer grasses and make a much smaller cup. The physical site of the nest works for both species, both will re-use nests and use the nests of other species, and both species may be double-brooded in a season. The droppings around the rim were likely deposited by the House Finch nestlings since parents donít remove the droppings after the first few days and Sayís Phoebes defecate over the side.

SooOOOOooo, hereís my story, and Iím sticking to it. Last year, a pair of Sayís Phoebes built a nest atop the beam and may have nested in it. Itís likely too early for a first brood to be gone, so it seems more likely that the House Finches beat them to last yearís nest, renovated the lining, laid eggs and hatched their babies. Itís also possible that the House Finches took over the nest once the Says Phoebes built it this year. Remember from the paragraph above that Sayís Phoebe shows some tolerance by encroachment of other species. When the Sayís Phoebes returned and found those big, gaping yellow mouths open at their arrival (a trigger for breeding parents), they just stuffed the fat green worms in.

If I were Kay, Iíd send her story to the co-authors of the Cornell BNA species account since this behavior has not been documented widely. Iíve pasted their biographical sketches with contact info below.


About the Author(s)
John Schukman, a former high school biology teacher, received a bachelorís degree and a masterís degree of science from Fort Hays State University and secondary education certification from Kansas University. He is presently a partner in the construction firm Leavenworth Builders, LLC. He is past president of the Leavenworth Audubon Society and is currently on the Board of Directors of the Kansas Ornithological Society. Current research interests include monitoring bird populations on the Fort Leavenworth Military Reservation, analyzing the distribution of area-sensitive forest birds in eastern Kansas, and contributing to the Kansas Breeding Bird Atlas project. Current address: 14207 Robin Road, Leavenworth, KS 66048-7281. E-mail:

Blair O. Wolf, a research associate in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona, received a masterís degree from the Department of Biology at the California State University at San Jose in 1991, where he studied the reproductive biology of the Black Phoebe. His doctoral research, completed in 1996 in the Zoology Department at Arizona State University, examined the water balance, energetics, and behavior of the Verdin during the summer in the Sonoran Desert. His current research focuses on examining the importance of the saguaro to the water and energy balance of desert nesting White-winged Doves. He is also interested in energy substrate utilization, heat transfer, thermoregulation, and microsite selection in vertebrates. Current address: Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Biosciences West Rm. 310, P.O. Box 210088, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721. E-mail:

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