Audubon Southwest's Bird of the Month

The Goth Cardinal, Phainopepla (Phainopepla nitens)

One of my favorite southwestern birds is the Phainopepla. A slim bird, about 16 inches from head to tail tip. The name phainopepla is from Greek, meaning shining robe. The female and the young are not as striking, having a uniform gray color. The species has a fluttery and buoyant flight pattern that is distinctive. The male has bright white wing patches that are very noticeable and a great identification field mark. A bird of the southwest, they can be found from Nevada, Utah, and central California south to Sonora and Baja in Mexico and also in the Chihuahuan desert and grasslands of the southwestern New Mexico bootheel, extending south into the central highlands of Mexico. I have noticed that on a cold winter day in the desert Phainopepla like to sleep in, remaining snug within a mistletoe clump in a mesquite or palo verde tree until the sun warms the day.

Some call this bird Black Cardinal because of the crest. Phainopepla are not closely related to cardinals, rather they are in a unique family of birds called silky flycatchers. The name of the family is misleading, with only four represented species, all in the America’s, they are not at all related to flycatchers, being more closely related to waxwings and seasonally eat berries and fruits in addition to insects. I love the name, silky flycatcher. The shiny black feathers of the male do look “silky” and is set off by a flaming red eye-a perfect bird for the spooky season. 

Phainopepla are also mimics and can imitate the song of other desert birds. So if you are trying out the Merlin sound bird identification app , be careful a Phainopepla isn’t fooling you.

The Phainopepla specializes in eating mistletoe berries and building their nests within a mistletoe clump. The Phainopepla digestive tract is specialized to quickly dissolve the skin of a berry and digest the nutrients in the fruit. An individual bird may eat over 1,000 berries in a day. Phainopepla have a symbiotic relationship with mistletoe, tending to defecate on a tree branch while perched, spreading the mistletoe seeds for a new mistletoe clump to establish. I encourage people who live in the Sonoran Desert to not remove all the mistletoe from their trees, as it is an essential plant for Phainopepla to nest and raise a family.

According to the Audubon field guide the male builds the nest and both the male and female incubate 2-3 eggs and feed the young. The male will display over the nest site that is inside a mistletoe clump. The young fledge from the nest in 19-20 days after hatching. Young birds and adults will remain together and join other family groups that will congregate at higher elevations and in wet riparian areas in the summer where they feed on other berries and insects. Check out the migration pattern of this bird at Audubon’s Migration Explorer.

Recent research published in the ornithology science journal, The Auk, strongly supports that Phainopepla are indeed itinerant breeders. This research has revealed that it is in fact, the same birds migrating in elevation. They winter, and in wet years breed, in the washes of the Sonoran and Mojave deserts. When the berries dry out and temperatures soar above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, Phainopepla migrate to higher elevations in the oak, pinyon, and juniper woodlands where the same birds that were wintering in the desert raise another family. This is a great reproductive strategy, as in some years when there is no winter precipitation and birds have failed spring breeding seasons in the desert, the Phainopepla has a second chance at higher elevations. Read more about this study at Audubon Magazine online.

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