Phainopeplas are closely related to Waxwings (see November’s Bird of the Month, the Cedar Waxwing) and belong to the Silky Flycatcher family. Not related to true flycatchers (Kingbirds, Phoebes, etc.) that eat mostly insects, Silky Flycatchers feed mainly on fruit and berries, with the occasional insect to supplement their diet. Phainopeplas are the only members of the family regularly resident in the US. It, plus the other three species in this family, is also found in Mexico and Central America.
The Phainopepla (pronounced fay-no-PEP-la) is a striking, crested, medium-sized songbird of the Southwestern US and Mexico, inhabiting desert and arid regions, riparian corridors and higher elevation woodlands. Males are glossy black (the name is from the Greek for “shining robe” referring to the male’s plumage) with white wing patches visible in flight. Females are a dull matte gray with lighter gray wing patches. Both sexes of adult birds have brilliant red eyes, giving rise to one of their nicknames, “Devil Bird.” Both female and male immature birds look similar to the adult female, but are more brownish and their eyes are also brown, not red.
If you want to see Phainopeplas, your best bet is to look for a tree that has mistletoe in it. The waxy whitish berries are their favorite food. When they’re available, an adult Phainopepla can eat up to just over 1,100 of them in a single day. These birds seldom drink, even though research indicates that they lose upwards of 95 percent of their body mass in water per day. Instead, they get most of their water supply from mistletoe berries they eat.
In the desert Southwest, the plant and bird have evolved a symbiotic relationship and rely on one another to survive. In fact, few other songbirds and their main food source have such a close interdependence. The birds eat the berries, which then pass through their digestive and excretory systems and the seeds are then deposited in their own package of fertilizer — Phainopepla guano — on the same or another tree. There the seeds can germinate, produce new clumps of mistletoe and start the cycle over again.
Phainopepla are, so far as we now know, the only bird to have a feature in their gizzards to increase digestive efficiency. This special mechanism shucks the skins of the berries they eat and packs it separately from the “meat” of the fruit into their intestines.
The male Phainopepla is the one who most often builds the nest, usually in mistletoe clumps for camouflage and safety. The nest is a shallow cup of twigs, weeds, and leaves woven together with spider web strands and lined with animal hair or plant fibers. The female usually lays two or three grayish eggs, heavily splotched with lavender and/or black. Both parents then share incubation duties for the 14 – 16 days the eggs take to hatch. For the 19 – 20 days it takes them to fledge and leave the nest, young birds eat crushed insects to which the adults gradually add fruit.
When food supplies are abundant enough to support it, Phainopeplas routinely raise two broods of young per nesting season. First, in early spring, pairs will mate and nest in lower elevations. Male Phainopeplas vigorously defend these nests and territories. Then, after the first brood is fledged and it gets hotter as time goes by, the birds move up into the higher elevations. Here pairs nest and mate again. This time, however, they are not territorial. In fact, as many as four nesting pairs have been reported in the same tree.
There are few other birds that you can confuse with Phainopeplas. Northern Mockingbirds are about the same size and show conspicuous white wing patches in flight. “Mockers,” however, are crestless and gray, not a shiny black. Pyrrhuloxias are also about the same size and shape and do sport a crest. The Pyrrhuloxia’s bill, though, is hugely thicker and a different shape than the Phainopepla’s. Also, a Phainopepla crest is even more “punk-rocker” looking than that of a Pyrrhuloxia, and males of the former are shiny black; those of the latter, grayish and red. The females of both species more closely resemble each other, but in addition to the splashes of brick red on the gray Pyrrhuloxia (who also lacks the Phainopepla’s gray wing patches), female Phainopeplas are olive brownish gray. Waxwings also have crests, and the feathers on both birds are silky, but there the similarity ends. Waxwings are short-tailed portly birds; Phainopeplas, slender, long-tailed ones.
The Bird of the Month feature is brought to you by the Mesilla Valley Audubon Society, the local chapter of the National Audubon Society. To learn about MVAS and its activities, including monthly fieldtrips and beginner bird walks, visit new-mexico-birds.com.