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The Phainopepla is one of those species that locals tend to take for granted, but which invariably pleases and intrigues visitors to our area. It is a native of the southwestern United States and Mexico. In this country its range consists of a relatively narrow strip of land adjacent to the Mexican border running from West Texas to California.
People who are unfamiliar with this species tend to confuse it with the Northern Cardinal. I’ve heard this bird referred to from time to time as the “Black Cardinal.” It’s not a Cardinal and it is not closely related to that species. Rather, it’s a flycatcher that happens to sport a crest. Nor is it really black. Male Phainopeplas may look black but in the right light their iridescent plumage shows up as a rich, deep blue-green. Female Phainopeplas have pewter gray plumage.
In warm weather Phainopeplas are perch hunters like all flycatchers. Typically, one of these birds will stake out a home base on a tree limb or twig and make forays from that perch, seizing insects in flight. As with all flycatchers, Phainopeplas have acute vision and are agile fliers.
They change their feeding habits in winter and this distinguishes them from other flycatchers. In winter, these birds eat the berries of mistletoe plants. A Phainopepla will find a tree — often, a mesquite — that is infested with mistletoe and claim territorial rights to it. It will remain on or very close to that tree, making frequent trips to the nearest mistletoe plant on the tree in order to harvest berries.
Typically, Phainopeplas inhabit open country, including the desert around Tucson. They’ve also urbanized. The neighborhoods in and around Tucson are full of these birds.
Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 500, f7.1 @ 1/1600.