June 22, 2017
Phainopepla male eye color
Phainopepla male eye color
Do you need a fascinating trivia question to stump your birding friends?  What is the only North American bird known to nest in two completely different habitats in the same breeding season?  The answer is the same species that marks the passage of novice birders to a higher elevation--when they’re able to correctly spell and pronounce “Phainopepla,” they’re no longer beginners.

Late last month Jay Miller, who has meticulously recorded every bird in his yard for over a decade, emailed that Phainopeplas passing through represented his 91st yardbird of the year.  Much more interesting, though, was his side note that they were moving west to east, not the more obviously expected south to north spring migration pattern.

There’s a reason for that.  If you’re out there right now birding in the mesquite bosques in Arizona’s low deserts, you may have noticed that the “Black Cardinals” abundant there in the spring have become conspicuous by their absence.  In the deserts of Arizona and California, Phainopeplas are early spring nesters, their breeding timed to coincide with the peak of the mistletoe berry crop and the first insect hatches of the year.  When the deserts begin to heat up in late spring, Arizona Phainopeplas move up into oak/chaparral foothills and raise a second brood  In California, this desert species moves westward over the coastal ranges for a second breeding season in cooler, damper habitat.

During the initial nesting season nests are usually built in mesquite or well concealed within a clump of mistletoe in the mesquite.  Mistletoe and mesquite have a parasitical relationship; in the mesquite bosques, Phainopeplas and mistletoe have a commensal one.  Mistletoe berries are a favorite food of this species.  They pass quickly through the birds’ digestive systems and form sticky excrement that attaches the plant’s seeds to the trees where the birds perch, continuing the cycle of mistletoe parasitism on the mesquites.

In the heat of the summer Phainopeplas can be found in riparian areas at higher elevations such as Oak Creek in central Arizona or along Sonoita and Arivaca Creeks in the southeastern part of the state.  At this time of year they often nest in loose colonies and travel in loose flocks.

One June during the height of Arizona’s early oughts’ drought, I hiked up Sonoita Creek from the mesquite bosques of Patagonia Lake State Park almost to the Circle Z property line without seeing a single Phainopepla.  As I rounded the final bend, I came upon twenty-some birds of this species—males, females, and young of the first breeding—flycatching over the creek in a feeding frenzy that lasted over an hour.  Then the entire flock departed together, off to find the next hatching or the next fruiting trees, nomadic until provident habitat was found for the second nesting season.

Phainopepla, the genus name, is from the Greek for “shining robe.”  Though they don’t typically do cities (we’ve seen one in our yard in fourteen years), these crested blackrobes with the striking red eye are exotic eye candy for birders from other parts of the country, many of whom mispronounce the name until they hear it a few times.  It’s doubtful anyone will know one of our most iconic Southwestern species is the answer to a great avian trivial puzzle

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Check out all the Phainopeplas on our website at http://jimburnsphotos.com/pages/phainopepla.html