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Phainopepla Life History



Phainopeplas are found mostly in desert washes that have mesquite, acacia, palo verde, smoke tree, and ironwood. In the United States, they are widespread in parts of the Sonoran Desert and Mojave Desert, as well as the Colorado Desert in California, usually below 6,000 feet elevation. They nest in these same desert trees and feed heavily on berries of the desert mistletoe, a parasitic plant of these trees. In California, where they are less common, they also occur in open oak-sycamore woodlands, chaparral, boxthorn scrub, and Joshua tree desert, especially where fruit is available. Generally, the species uses washes, foothills, and canyons more than open desert and grassland.

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Phainopeplas eat mainly fruit, particularly desert mistletoe berries in fall through spring, as well as boxthorn, elderberry, redberry, juniper, and sumac fruits. They also eat flying insects captured in short, sallying flights or longer, sustained flights. Males and females defend separate winter feeding territories (about an acre in extent). Phainopeplas also glean bugs, beetles, and caterpillars from vegetation. Nesting birds feed young mainly insect prey, which is richer in protein than fruits. Phainopeplas rarely go to the ground to feed but do venture to the ground to gather nesting material.

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Nest Placement


Males select the nest site, usually in the fork of a tree or inside a mistletoe plant, about 6–16 feet above the ground. Most nests are in natural habitat, but nests in fruit orchards have been reported.

Nest Description

Males construct a small, tidy, cup-shaped nest of twigs, stems, and plant fibers, held together with spider silk and lined with hair or down. Females sometimes add part of the lining. Nests measure about 4 inches across and 1.9 inches high, with the interior cup 2.5 inches across and 1.2 inches deep.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:2-4 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
Nestling Period:14-20 days
Egg Description:

Round. Light grayish, with small dark speckles.

Condition at Hatching:

Helpless with sparse white down, skin grayish black.

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Foliage Gleaner

Phainopeplas are thought to be monogamous. They commence courtship in winter. Single males initiate a courtship flight, a circling flight often quite high in the air, where they may be joined by up to 8 more birds in a loose, circling flock. Often this display begins near dusk. As the nesting season approaches, males perform stunning displays over the nest site they choose, flying above it, then spiraling suddenly down with depressed tail and flaring wingbeats that display the striking white wing patches. Females visit several nest sites, where males entice them with courtship feeding (a few berries or insects). Males and females in Arizona defend nest sites and adjacent fruiting mistletoe with chases, threat postures (raised wings and hunched back), and harsh calls. In California, where fruit is more dispersed, males defend only the nest area itself during the nesting season. Where food is plentiful, Phainopeplas sometimes nest in loose colonies, with multiple nests in the same tree. After the nesting season, small flocks often gather where food is plentiful. Loose flocks form during migration into and out of the deserts in fall and spring, but most Phainopeplas are solitary in winter. Phainopeplas spend much of their day on a high perch, watching for intruders.

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Low Concern

Phainopepla populations declined by an estimated 8% between 1970 and 2016, according to Partners in Flight. The global breeding population is an estimated 3.2 million, according to Partners in Flight, and rates a 10 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating it is a species of low conservation concern. Habitat loss from conversion of desert riparian areas for agricultural use has led to reductions in the number and size of breeding and wintering populations.

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Chu, Miyoko and Glenn Walsberg. (1999). Phainopepla (Phainopepla nitens), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Crouch, J. E. (1943). Distribution and habitat relations of the Phainopepla. Auk 60:319-332.

North American Bird Conservation Initiative. (2014). The State of the Birds 2014 Report. US Department of Interior, Washington, DC, USA.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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