The Phainopepla is a crested songbird of the deserts and woodlands of the southwestern U.S. and Mexico. It’s the most northerly representative of the tropical Central American family of silky flycatchers. Phainopepla means “shining robe” in Greek, on account of the glossy black plumage of the male. When the males fly, their distinctive white wing patches are clearly visible.
The Phainopopla can be found in the deserts of California, Nevada, Arizona and Baja, although they range as far north as the San Joaquin Valley. Like other flycatcher species, the Phainopepla eats a variety of berries and insects. What makes the bird unique is a specialized mechanism in their gizzard that improves the digestion of berries. This means Phoradendron californornicum, commonly known as the desert mistletoe, can form a substantial part of their daily diet.
Few birds have as close a relationship to a plant species as Phainopepla has with the desert mistletoe. The mistletoe benefits just as much as the Phainopepla because seeds pass through the bird’s digestive tract unharmed, only to land on another tree in the bird’s droppings, sticking long enough to germinate. This ensures a continued food supply for the Phainopepla.
With Phainopepla so reliant on the mistletoe diet – eating as many as 1,100 berries a day, using the mistletoe for water intake and even using mistletoe clumps to place their nests – it’s easy to spot them perched atop trees, vigilantly guarding their favorite clumps of mistletoe
Phainopepla are also unique for the imitations of 13 other species, a defense mechanism designed to confuse predators. Unfortunately, habitat loss due to agricultural use has caused large reductions in their numbers.