Living Bird Magazine
Living Bird Magazine
- ORDER: Passeriformes
- FAMILY: Ptiliogonatidae
A singular bird of the Southwest, the Phainopepla is a brilliant sight in flight. Males are silky black and slender, with an elegant crest and bold white wing patches that appear when the bird takes wing. Females are similar but a subdued gray. These glossy birds occur in desert washes, where they eat mainly mistletoe berries, and in oak and sycamore woodlands of California and Arizona. They often perch high in shrubs and catch insects on the wing.More ID Info
Find This Bird
Phainopeplas are easiest to find in winter, when they can be numerous in desert washes with plenty of mistletoe growing on mesquite. Also look for them in California’s oak woodlands, particularly in the warmer months. They tend to perch high in shrubs or trees, watching for intruders or catching insects. Listen for their distinctive, rising wurp call and watch for the bright wing patches of flying birds.
- Capulinero Negro (Spanish)
- Phénopèple luisant (French)
- Cool Facts
- The name "Phainopepla" comes from the Greek for "shining robe," 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 have digestive tracts 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.
- The Phainopepla rarely drinks water. Instead, it gets the water it needs from its diet of mistletoe.