Under the Mistletoe—Phainopepla

A member of the silky-flycatcher family, the Phainopepla inhabits the Southwest and Mexico. The male has a thin frame; shiny black plumage; piercing crimson eyes; and a sparse, cow-lick crest. In contrast to the male’s shimmering plumage, the similarly shaped female sports sooty gray feathers with the same crimson eyes and wispy crest. In flight, the male flashes white wing patches, visible from above or below.

The Phainopepla remains an enigma in a number of ways. For instance, the birds are locally abundant in the Anza–Borrego Desert most of the year, inhabiting the arid riparian areas and washes with acacia and mesquite that host desert mistletoe. Yet they vacate the area in late spring through summer. At that point, they move to inland areas of the coastal slope, inhabiting wetter riparian woodlands dominated by live oak and sycamores—and mistletoe.

Although not yet definitely proven, Phainopeplas may actually be itinerant breeders, nesting in one area in the early spring then winging it to another region to lay a second clutch in summer—an unusual pattern among North American passerines.

Most North American flycatchers have very simple, innate songs; they are born able to produce adult songs with no learning required, unlike most songbirds. Yet Phainopeplas have complex songs and skillfully mimic songs in their environment. Their diet varies seasonally. In winter, although they are (at least nominally) in a flycatcher family, they rely predominantly on mistletoe berries, serving as a primary vector for dispersal.

Few other birds in North America have such an intertwined relationship with a single plant species. In summer, Phainopeplas add insects to their diet, sallying out, hovering, and pursuing them with bouncy acrobatics. In all seasons, Phainopeplas commonly live for many months far from surface water, rarely drinking even when water is available. Instead, they extract the moisture they need from their diet.

Individual Phainopeplas or small flocks may appear in atypical habitat throughout much of the year. So although their most common habitats are desert and inland riparian, don’t count yourself out if neither of those is your habitat. Listen for its distinct call—a quiet, questioning, up-slurred “Wurp?” Then scan the tops of trees or bushes to spot this silky-flycatcher with its trademark punk-rocker crest.

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