Naturalist’s Notebook: Phainopeplas

By John Schmitt
October 15, 2012
Naturalist

14 June 2012
Tillie Creek Campground
Kern River Valley
Kern County, California

This morning, in addition to the many Phainopeplas migrating through, I discovered two adult male Phainopeplas engaged in their distinctive display flights. I focused on one male, and it soon became apparent that his activity was centered on a lone scrawny live oak, and his flamboyant display flights appeared to be for the benefit of a small, constantly fluctuating, gallery of gray female Phainopeplas in the nearby treetops.

During the display flights, the male always carried a bit of nest material in his beak, and—in an exaggeratedly buoyant butterflylike flight—would approach the nest tree in wide, level arcs or in a zigzag manner, showing off the bright white patches on his primaries. In addition, he would keep his long black tail partly to fully spread and adopt a peculiar hunchbacked posture. He would parade in this way until ending the show with a sudden smooth dive followed by an upward swoop to the nest site, located in a tangle of twigs and leaves beside a mistletoe clump.

The Phainopepla would then begin adding the material to his nest, which at this phase was just a scant tuft of plant debris balanced on some twigs. In one instance, in his zeal to display to an arriving female, the bird actually snatched some of the material from this tenuous structure and launched into an exuberant flight display, which did not help his nest-building process. I guess it would constitute a serious breach of Phainopepla protocol for him to display without carrying nest material in his beak!

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