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(Phainopepla nitens)
by Jon Friedman

Photo by Richard of SearchNet Media

The Phainopepla (pronounced FAY-noh-PEP-la) is the sole member of the family of birds known as Ptilogonatidae that is found as far north as the United States and the three other members of the family are only found further south in the Western Hemisphere. They are an exclusively New World family of birds. The name which comes from the Latin and Greek translates to “shining robe”. Birders in Southern Arizona are familiar with this species as it is commonly found in our habitat and frequently seen sitting at the top of native trees.  This bird has many common “nicknames” and is frequently called a “black Cardinal” or a “desert Cardinal”. It is also known commonly as a black flycatcher, black-crested flycatcher, shinning crested flycatcher, shining fly-snapper, and silky flycatcher. While this species does, at a glance, remind us of the Northern Cardinal or Pyrrhuloxia (especially when seen silhouetted against the blue sky) it not at all related to the cardinals. It is almost cardinal size, has the same body shape and posture as cardinals, and it has a cardinal-like crest atop its head. However, the Ptilogonatidae family are actually Silky-Flycatchers. They are primarily insectivores. During winter, when insects are not very abundant, their diet changes over to berries – mistletoe and pepper berries in particular.

Appearance and Size
Phainopepla are often described, correctly, as slender and elegant. When perched, they display a distinct upright posture, flitting their tails anxiously awaiting their next insect prey. Adults of this species look remarkably alike and the major distinction to telling them apart by sex is their coloration. Females tend to have a charcoal gray body throughout while the males are glossy, shiny black. Both sexes have orange/red eyes. Both sexes have white patches on their wings but this is more evident in flight than when they are perched. They tend to be slightly smaller (perhaps 7/8 size) than Northern Cardinals at 7 to 7-3/4”. Both birds have slender, tall cardinal-like crests. They have broad wings and long tails. As with many other species of birds, their juveniles tend to look like the female. When the juveniles reach sexual maturity they begin to take on their adult plumage and the males develop their black coloration.

Range and Habitat
In North America, Phainopepla are usually found only from Southern California, across Southern Arizona, the southwestern “boot heel” of New Mexico and the Big Bend area of Southern Texas. They are considered casual visitors to the upper Colorado River areas of northwestern Arizona, extreme southern Nevada, and extreme southwestern Colorado. They have occasionally ventured into northern California and southern Oregon. However, they are considered birds of the desert and desert scrublands, mesquite habitat, oak foothills and can be seen within these territories atop trees with mistletoe and pepper trees. The largest numbers of Phainopepla are found in winter and during the breeding season in the deserts of southern California and Arizona. They are also frequently found in cultivated agricultural areas. Their southernmost range is generally into very southern Mexico although they can occasionally be seen in Central America as far south as Panama. They are somewhat nomadic birds and the northernmost Phainopepla tend to move south after breeding, probably in search of more abundant food supplies. There have been a few reported verified sightings of strays way outside their normal range in eastern Canada and the New England coast. Its closest American relatives are the waxwings, which share similar behaviors.

Photo by Richard of SearchNet Media

As Silky Flycatchers, these birds favor insects as the major staple in their diet. Most often they hawk insects out of the air in flight. Their white wing patches give them the appearance of flying like butterflies, somewhat erratically, darting to and from, up and down, feasting on insect hatches. They have been known to consume non-flying insects, too. Especially in their northern range during winter, when insects may not be abundant, they rely on a variety of berries as the staple in their diet. They are particularly fond of mistletoe berries (poisonous to most others that consume them), but the Phainopepla eat them with impunity. They are most often seen atop native trees with mistletoe where they stake out the highest perch as a hunting and feeding perch. They also seem to prefer Peruvian and California pepper trees and the mastic tree which also produces berries they relish. Scarlet Buckthorn berries, juniper and elder berries are also consumed. In their more southern range they eat the flower pedals of the guava plants.

Nesting behavior
In Southern Arizona, Phainopepla are early nesters. Nests are built beginning as early as January and almost exclusively by the males. Males always scout out the best nesting territories. They may build more than one nest using one or more nests as decoys in attempts to foil predators. Eggs will be laid by February and in March/ April fledglings will be leaving the nests.  Nests are usually found anywhere in height from 4 to 50 feet above ground. Aside from the native desert trees, their nests have been found in a variety of other trees including citrus, cottonwoods, oaks, sycamores, hackberry, and willow. Nests are almost always constructed in the crotch of multiple branches or in the forks of branches surrounded by dense vegetation or in dense clumps of mistletoe itself. Like most bird architects, Phainopepla build intricate nests of small twigs and plants fibers, held together with spider silk. Nest interiors are usually lined with animal wools, hair, feathers and plant down.

Female Phainopepla
Male Phainopepla
Photos by Prchard of SearchNet Media

Phainopepla is one of few birds that have a feeding territory separate from its nesting ground. So the birds defend their relatively small courtship and nesting territories in the trees and fly out of that territory into different larger territory for foraging, typically in foothill and wash habitat. Preferred trees for nest building are the mesquites, palo verde and ironwoods. It is known that these birds occupy different habitats during different parts of the year for breeding. Their first breeding of the season is usually in lower elevations in the deserts they occupy. In late summer and early fall they may breed again. In those cases, they have usually moved higher in elevation to the oak and sycamore habitat of the mountain canyons where their second or last broods of the year will occur.

They typically lay 2 or 3 eggs per brood, with 2 or 3 broods per breeding season. In years when there has been abundant or above average rainfall, they may lay 4 eggs or have an extra brood. The eggs are grayish-white with brown splotches, sometimes scrawled with black. Incubation typically lasts 14-16 days and the young permanently leave the nest after about 19 days old. Parents feed them tiny insects and crushed berries.

Photo by Richard of SearchNet Media

The earliest reports on Phainopepla described them as silent. We now know this is not true. It may have been assumed that they were silent as early observations of single individual birds may not have been heard by the viewers. They can tend to utter soft, quiet sounds when by themselves. But when groups are together foraging they are much more vocal and easy to hear. Males seem to be more vocal and are more vocal in flight than when perched. Their frequent call has been described as a liquidy quirt or lerp. Another call note is described as a soft low wurp. The song can be a weak, casual warble, sometimes wheezy and sounding disconnected. Males in flight often sing a sweet gargling song that is reminiscent of some blackbirds.

This is the time of year when Phainopepla are most commonly seen in the Sonoran Desert. They are found throughout the valley floor. Watch for them particularly atop native tree that have mistletoe and along washes that are vegetated. Later in the season they will occupy the lower mountain canyons that have lush vegetation.

For folks who want to read more about this unique desert bird, feel free to pull up a comfortable chair in the store and peruse our reference/ research library. If you would like to attract Phainopepla to your feeding station, come in and talk to me. I’ll show you the right feeder (Bugnutter) and the right food (Nuts ‘n’ Bugs insect meal) and give you good tips on how to be successful attracting these wonderful birds to your yard.

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