Our first sighting of the male Phainopepla was in Northern Mexico in the Baranca Del Cobre region. This is a magnificent bird with several visible characteristics: 1) a sheen glistening from it’s black feathers 2) a distinctive crest 3) their red eyes and 4) wing patches. Noted as “A singular bird of the Southwest, the Phainopepla is a brilliant sight in flight.” It’s bold white wing patches are easily visible when the male is on the wing. Females are similar to their male counterparts but are colored a demur, subdued gray.
These glossy birds occur in desert washes in the US, where they eat mainly mistletoe berries. They nest in oak and sycamore woodlands of California and Arizona. They often perch high in shrubs and catch insects in mid-air.
Finding the Phainopepla
Phainopeplas are easiest to spot in winter, when they can be numerous in desert washes with plenty of mistletoe growing on mesquite. They have a distinctive, rising wurp call, which is almost as fun as watching for the bright wing patches of flying birds.
Cool Facts about Phainopepla
- The name “Phainopepla” comes from the Greek for “shining robe,” which is a fitting characterization of the shiny, jet-black plumage of the adult male.
- Phainopeplas are the only U.S. representative of the family Ptilogonatidae, known as “silky-flycatchers.” They are not related to North American flycatchers.
- Their nearest common ancestors are the Waxwings, which also have a glossy, silky look to their plumage. Phainopeplas are also related to Palmchats, which occur only on the island of Hispaniola.
- Phainopeplas rarely drink water; instead they get their moisture from mistletoe berries. Their digestive tracts are specialized for eating mistletoe fruit. These berries are low in nutrients, so the birds have to consume lots of them. The berries spend only about 12 minutes in a Phainopepla’s intestine, and the birds may eat 1,100 berries in a day.
- Phainopeplas mimic the calls of other birds, including Red-tailed Hawks, Northern Mockingbirds, Northern Flickers, Gambel’s Quail, Mourning Doves, Verdins, Acorn Woodpeckers, scrub-jays, and American Kestrels.
- Phainopeplas adjust their nesting schedule according to when their favored foods ripen. Ornithologists suspect (but have been unable to determine for sure) that some Phainopeplas nest in one location, then move to another habitat and nest again during the same year.
- The Phainopepla behaves strikingly differently in its two main habitats. In the desert, it is territorial, actively defending nesting and foraging sites, while in the woodlands it is colonial, with as many as four nesting pairs sharing one large tree.