The Little Tyrant

A Wikipedia entry describes Say’s phoebe as a drab, chunky bird. That hardly befits the pair of aerial acrobats I encountered on the desert.

They were sallying back and forth from their perches on ocotillo branches to snatch flying insects out of the air. Grace and beauty on the wing. My photographic skills were a poor match for their antics.

These little birds have a tremendous range — from Mexico, through the continental US, into Canada and as far north as Alaska.

Say’s phoebe belongs to the family of birds called Tyrannidae, the tyrant flycatchers, probably the largest bird family with more than 400 species in the Americas. As for why they’re called tyrants, that’s a story for another time.

Behind the name …

Say’s Phoebe is named for Thomas Say (1787 – 1834), a Quaker from a well-to-do Philadelphia family. He trained as an apothecary but his real interest was in natural history which is where he made his greatest contributions.

thomas_sayHe joined Major Long’s expedition to the Rocky Mountains (1819-1820) as a zoologist. During the trek Say wrote the first European accounts of numerous animals including several lizards and snakes, swift foxes, coyotes and numerous birds, including this phoebe.

His contributions to American natural history are ranked with those of John Muir and John James Audubon.

Say’s phoebe   Sayornis saya
Ocotillo  Fouquieria splendens

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