Blog neighbour Chas Clifton, also recently back from southern Arizona, asks: "The Phainopepla has no common name? Really?" Until I refreshed my memory with a glance at Peterson's Western Birds, I was calling Phainopepla nitens by the family name, silky flycatcher, and I doubt I'm alone. Phainopepla's a pretty cool bird name, though: Greek for "shining robe", a reference to the iridescent plumage of the male—and the specific epithet, nitens, also means "shining", this time in Latin.
The female's plumage, a matte grey, is more subdued than the male's glossy black, which serves her well while nesting.
The phainopeplae (that's plural, right?) I observed and photographed were tolerant but not excessively confiding. The nest above, in a mesquite overlooking a dry wash in an Oro Valley neighbourhood, took some finding.
[Phainopepla with Pusch Ridge in background.]
[Phainopepla with chain link fence, somewhat less picturesque.]
Although, as the name silky flycatcher implies, they do eat insects, these birds subsist primarily on berries, and they are the primary propagators of Phoradendron californicum, the hemiparasitic desert mistletoe. At the excellent website of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Kenn Kaufmann notes, "Few other birds in North America have such an intimate
relationship with a single plant species." He goes on to say, "At times they congregate by the hundreds when food is abundant, such as
when elderberries are ripening along rivers at the edge of the desert.
When food is scarce, they virtually disappear. Their numbers vary tremendously
from season to season. As long as the mistletoe is in fruit, however,
there will be at least a few Phainopeplas around. A classic winter sight
in the desert is a lone Phainopepla perched atop a mesquite, its spiky
crest raised, trim and alert, ready to chase away any other birds that
might approach the clumps of mistletoe in the branches below it."
[Beneficiary: Gila woodpecker (Melanerpes uropygialis) feeding on desert mistletoe in palo verde.]
I never did get a good flight picture showing the phainopepla's rather mockingbird-like wing flashes, but enjoyed the time I did spend in their company. Here's to a good berry crop and nests full of silky flycatchers.