I fell in love with this august mystery from the legends described by my biology professor while attending college in Kansas. When he heard I was from Arizona, Doc Wimmer went on and on about this little bird Phainopepla nitens
. He couldn't wait for the Jan term trip through the deserts of the southwest and neither could I. He told us that showered in sunlight a male has all “the forest of greens and purple shades in his black
.” After Christmas break he and a caravan of other biology students drove all the way to Tucson from Southwestern College. Arriving at my doorstep late one night they loaded me, my backpack and sleeping bag into one of the cars. Off we went to the Gilbert Ray campground in the Saguaro National park
, right next door to the Sonoran Desert Museum
, where we pitched our tents breakfasted on oatmeal and raisins and I fell under the spell of this jewel of a bird.
It seemed as if we were at the edge of the earth each morning waking up to this miracle of a desert as it materialized out of the darkness. It took three days of getting up before dawn and wandering among the rock-strewn hills and sand-choked gullies before dazed with sleeplessness, awe and wide eyed wonder I spotted my first silky black Phainopepla. Preening his shiny dark self in a lone leafless tree he wore a striking ebony black plumage and peered out at me with liquid red eyes. He took off with a sort soft quiot?, an up-slurred whistled hoooeet followed by a low quirk and a "pretty boy" call made up his repertoire of songs. With slow graceful flight he caught me by surprise with a flash of white wing patches in a mid winter song. He sang several phrases using the same voice, but by the blazing summer time the Phainopepla song becomes a low shimmering wheer floating through still and blistering heat.
These members of the waxwing family are shy and reclusive living in the southwestern United States, it isn't surprising to miss them even when spending lots of time in appropriate habitat. Found in central California, southern Nevada, southern Utah, southern New Mexico, and western Texas. South to Baja and into Mexico. During the winters, these birds migrate to southern California, southern Nevada, central Arizona, southern New Mexico and southern Texas. Another common name originating from the Hispanic scientific community is Capulinero negro .
The female is a bird of a different feather sporting a lacey crest, gray coloring, red eyes, and a cool demeanor. Juveniles are similar to females by comparison, gray with paler gray wing patches. Males generally outnumber females and predicting where to find them in large numbers remains difficult. Seen singly, it takes to the air in long sallies, like a typical flycatcher from its perch catching insects in mid air! You have to be patient when birding for them, their habit of appearing locally is irregular and unpredictable, but sometimes they are gregarious enough to travel in small flocks.
Most novice birders will call them “black cardinals.” Once you get over the excitement of seeing your first one, you’ll know why because the body shapes are so similar. Phainopepla nitens is unique in that it is the only species in the order Passeriformes. Phainopepla comes from the Greek meaning "shining robe," in reference to its dark and dazzling plumage. Its specific name, Phainopepla nitens emphasizes it’s remarkable brilliance, since nitens, also means "shining" repeated once again only this time in Latin. These amazing birds are the only ones that can feast and thrive on the colorful yet highly poisonous desert mistletoe berries(Phoradendron macrophyllum) a plant killing parasite.
The word mistletoe was first used in Europe and it’s most likely that people were aware that the tacky seeds covered with a glue-like substance stuck to the feet and bills of birds. When birds land on other branches or clean their bills, the seeds adhere to the limbs and germinate directly on the branches they are attached to. In fact, this may even explain the derivation of the word mistletoe: from two Germanic words: mista (dung) and tan (twig); referring to bird droppings on a branch or stem. It's only when these berries are scarce that Phainopepla nitens consume small insects.
Their nesting habitat is usually in mesquite, ironwood, palo verde and peppertrees. Most often in the Sonoran desert it's the mesquite trees usually growing along washes and they will leave clues behind with piles of seeds on stones in a typical pattern. Armed with this information it's a little easier to discover them. Once you can readily identify their song, simply look for its conspicuous crest, longish tail, and upright posture among the branches of trees with desert mistletoe. A bit larger than a sparrow these slender elegant birds and the parasitic tree infestation have a symbiotic relationship. It's nature in its purest from, even though they are completely different organisms they coexist as a result of a mutually beneficial relationship.
Mistletoe berries are dependent on the Phainopepla to plant them on the branches of a suitable host tree. When the Phainopepla eats the large sticky berries the seeds pass unharmed through the digestive system and the bird's droppings now contain the seeds. When the droppings hit the branch of the tree, seeds begin to germinate. An abundance of mistletoe berries means that Phainopepla will congregate in the hundreds; a sight truly lit with enchantment as dawn struggles with the early heat of the day. However, once a tree is infected with the desert mistletoe it's doomed to die over a period of years if left alone. Many people understandably cut the branches off the trees trying to save them and because their food source is so unstable Phainopepla nitens numbers vary greatly from year to year.
These small crested passerine birds nests in and among their companion food sources. Around here it is mainly in the mistletoe located in the upper canopy of a forked limbed mesquite. The male, who participates in much hawking and diving for insects during the breeding season, almost exclusively constructs the nest. The female will lay thickly speckled eggs in his shallow cup shaped loosely built nest ranging from six to fifteen feet, and occasionally as high as forty-five feet into the tree tops. Two to four peeps take about two weeks to hatch from the pale green eggs, the nestlings typically fledge after twenty days and are occasionally parasitized by the brown-headed cowbird. Even more complicating, is that Phainopepla are believed to have two broods, an early one in the desert and another much farther north at a higher elevation.
When the heat pours down upon the desert summer, the Phainopepla head for higher canyons where in the largest patch in the highest tree that he can find. Oaks and sycamores freckled with afternoon sunlight find themselves nesting territory that is aggressively defended by the male while they once again raise a second brood. So little is known about their breeding habits that studies at California Berkley have been funded.
Phainopepla nitens is not the kind of bird you can plant a tree in a yard or put out a batch of marvel meal for and hope for a visit. For this bird to be discovered, one has to hike into the desert washes to see these unequaled creatures. One reason they may be so hard to find is that they need a niche that includes "old growth" mesquite trees, hard to find in urban areas, added to the fact that these trees are infected with a parasitic plant that leads to the mesquites demise forces these birds to be nomadic in their habitats. My field notes say that I have spotted them most often in Sabino Canyon on hikes with my sons. April 1992 I wrote:
“These spectacular shadows against cloud forsaken skies cosmic dance through fingers of the morning light and shake me to the heart. With unblemished optimism, they go where I cannot.”
Chu, M., and G. Walsberg. 1999. Phainopepla. Birds of North America 415: 1–19.
Parasitic Flowering Plants: