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Phainopepla

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Phainopepla - Male

Phainopepla - Male

Alan Vernon

This bird's unique name is perfectly suited for its unique plumage, as the name phainopepla orginated from the Greek phain peplos or “shining robe.” In bright sunlight, these birds do shine, and the male's glossy plumage is unmistakable.

Common Name:

Phainopepla, Black Cardinal

Scientific Name:

Phainopepla nitens

Scientific Family:

Ptilogonatidae

Appearance:

  • Bill: Short, straight, black, fairly sharp
  • Size: 7-8 inches long with 12-inch wingspan, round wings, long tail, ragged crest
  • Colors: Black, red, gray, white, gray-brown, blue-black, orange, brown
  • Markings: Dimorphic species. Males are glossy black overall and can appear blue-black in bright sunlight. A broad white patch on the primary feathers is visible in flight. The ragged, pointed crest is often raised. Legs and feet are dark, and the eyes are red. Females are an allover slate or ash gray with fine white edging on all wing feathers. Their wing patches do not contrast as prominently as those of male birds, but they share the same pointed crest and red eyes. Juvenile birds resemble females with the same white wing edging but show a gray-brown plumage and dark orange or brown eyes. As juvenile males mature, their gray-brown plumage may become mottled with black feathers.

Foods:

Primarily berries; also insects, flower petals (See: Frugivorous)

Habitat and Migration:

These silky-flycatchers prefer dry habitats such as desert scrub, mesquite thickets and the canyon foothills of oak and other woodlands in southwestern North America, as well as riparian corridors in the driest regions. They can be found year-round from southern California to southwestern Texas and further south throughout the Baja peninsula and into central Mexico. During the summer breeding season, the phainopepla may range slightly further north into central Arizona and Nevada, as well as north-central California. Vagrant sightings are occasionally reported further north and east than the bird's expected range, with rare sightings great distances from their traditional southwest habitat.

Vocalizations:

The phainopepla has a complex, varied song that includes rattling warbles and buzzy trills, typically with a descending tone. The common call is a light, wispy “whihp” with a rising pitch. These birds are also accomplished mimics and have been noted as reproducing the calls of more than a dozen other bird species, including red-tailed hawks and northern flickers.

Behavior:

These birds are highly nomadic and range widely in search of food, following berry crops. They will defend their feeding areas, chasing other birds out of the vicinity. Depending on the crop size and food availability, they may be solitary or could be found in pairs or small groups, with larger numbers of phainopeplas likely where food is abundant. They forage in trees and bushes, only rarely foraging on the ground, and will hawk insects in flight, particularly when feeding nestlings. These birds are frequently seen perched visibly at the tops of bare trees, and during courtship displays, male phainopeplas will spiral or zigzag above their claimed territory to advertise their availability to females.

Reproduction:

These birds are monogamous, and the male builds a cup-shaped nest of twigs and plant fibers lined with down, hair and fur. He may build several nests ranging from 5-50 feet above the ground, but the female will choose which one she prefers to lay her eggs. Each brood contains 2-4 gray, splotchy eggs, and 1-2 broods may be laid each year, though a second brood is often laid far distant from the first, unlike other birds that nest in the same area when raising multiple broods.

Both parents incubate the eggs for 13-14 days, and both continue to feed the altricial young for 19-20 days until the chicks are ready to leave the nest.

Attracting Phainopeplas:

It can be a treat to see these silky black birds in the backyard, and birders can readily attract them in the proper habitat by providing plenty of berry bushes. Mistletoe berries are a favorite of phainopeplas, and other native plantings can help provide secure shelter and nesting areas for these birds. Unlike many birds, however, phainopeplas rarely visit bird baths, as they obtain most the water they need from the berries they consume.

Conservation:

The phainopepla is not considered endangered or threatened, though loss of mesquite brush habitat in Mexico may be responsible for slight population declines. Conserving habitat, particularly the mistletoe and other berry bushes this species prefers, is essential.

Similar Birds:

Photo – Phainopepla – Male © Alan Vernon
Photo – Phainopepla – Female © Alan Vernon

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