Phainopepla (Male)

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One of the first bird species that I observed years ago when we moved to Arizona was the Phainopepla.  “Wow,” I thought, “a black Cardinal.”  That impression seems to be shared by any number of visitors to southern Arizona.  On numerous occasions I’ve encountered tourists who were brimming with excitement about the “black Cardinal” that they’d just observed.  I was wrong and so are the tourists.  The Phainopepla isn’t a Cardinal, and is not a close relative.  

What Phainopeplas and Cardinals have in common is that they both have crests.  Indeed, the male Phainopepla’s crest is extravagant, resembling the spiked hair of a 1970’s punk rocker.  That aside, the two species have nothing in common.  Cardinals are seed eaters with finch-like beaks.  Phainopeplas, by contrast, are members of a small family of birds, whose members reside primarily south of the United States, known as Silky Flycatchers.  In the United States Phainopeplas are a southwestern species, showing up in the oak scrub and mesquite habitats that exist close to our southern border.

They are an extremely common sight in southern Arizona during the winter months.  Indeed, in January through mid-April, every mesquite seems to have its resident Phainopepla.  In the hours just after sunrise and just before sunset  these birds perch, uttering a mournful one-note call.  In the warm months Phainopeplas are insectivores.  In the winter they subsist on mistletoe berries.  Indeed, Phainopeplas propagate mistletoe.  The sticky berries adhere to the birds’ legs and get rubbed off on trees, where they germinate and establish themselves as plant parasites.

A male Phainopepla is a striking sight.  In most light it appears to be a solid coal black although, if the light is just right, the black plumage becomes a glimmering cobalt blue.  The adults of this species have ruby red eyes and, of course, the males sport those magnificent crests.

Look closely at this individual and you’ll see that he’s carrying a mouthful of insects.  There was a female Phainopepla perched nearby when I photographed the male and it is possible that the male had gathered insects to present to the female as part of courtship.

As abundant as Phainopeplas are during the winter months they mostly disappear from our local desert once the hot weather arrives.  We’ve been having high temperatures in the vicinity of 100 degrees recently (over 32 degrees Celsius) and the Phainopeplas seem to be gone.  Where do they go?  Many seem to migrate to the wooded slopes of our local mountains where they raise their young.  ‘That makes these birds relatively unique in that they favor two distinct habitats and two distinct diets — in winter, they are desert dwellers subsisting on mistletoe berries, and in summer, they move up into the woodlands where they pursue insects.  Another interesting fact: these birds seem to utter different calls depending on the habitat that they reside in.  Their summer calls aren’t at all like what they utter in winter.

In a few days I’ll post images of the female.  Her pewter-colored plumage contrasts with the male’s black.  I’ll also post images of an immature Phainopepla in the near future.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm f4 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, M setting (auto ISO), ISO 1000, f6.3 @ 1/2500.

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