Attack of the Phainopepla

The Phainopepla (Phainopepla nitens) is a pretty bird, but around my house one has been pretty messy. For several weeks, a male Phainopepla has been feasting on the berries of a desert mistletoe plant. It has been peeping in the window. At times it attacks its reflection by pecking at the window and flying up and down the glass. It is apparently trying to drive off what it thinks is a competitor. Does he look angry?

The Phainopepla is a crested bird slightly smaller than a cardinal. It has a body length of 7- to 8 inches and a wingspan of 11 inches. The males are shiny black with red eyes, long tail and a white patch on the wings which is conspicuous in flight. Females and immature birds are all gray. The name “Phainopepla” comes from the Greek for “shining robe,” a fitting description of the shiny, jet-black plumage of the adult male. The Phainopepla is one of the four species of silky-flycatchers and the only one that occurs in the U.S. The others inhabit Mexico and Central America.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

“… the Phainopepla is unique in taxonomy, distribution, and behavior. It is particularly notable for its enigmatic pattern of breeding twice each year, in two different habitats.” It breeds in both the desert and in arid woodlands.

Cornell says that “An individual Phainopepla eats at least 1,100 mistletoe berries per day, when they are available.” (My visitor deposits the remains of these sticky berries on my window ledge and ironwork.)

“The Phainopepla exhibits strikingly different behaviors in its two habitats. In the desert, it is territorial, actively defending nesting and foraging sites, while in the woodlands it is colonial, with as many as four nesting pairs sharing one large tree.

“The Phainopepla rarely drinks water, even though research indicates that it loses about 95 percent of its body mass in water per day. Instead, it gets the water it needs from its diet of mistletoe.” Phainopepla also eat other berries and flying insects.

According to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum:

“This bird nests in early spring in mesquite brushlands, usually well up in a stout fork or horizontal branch of a tree. The smooth, slightly glossy eggs usually number two to three per clutch, and are grayish-white or pinkish, finely and profusely spotted with black, pale lavender, or gray. The eggs are incubated by both sexes (possibly the major portion by the male) for 14 to 15 days. The young are tended by both parents and leave the nest at 18 to 19 days.”


The Phainopepla, when pursued by predators or handled by humans, mimics the calls of other birds; imitations of at least 13 species have been recorded. (Listen to sounds)

As the supply of mistletoe berries dwindle, my Phainopepla is now spending about half his time attacking a neighbor’s window which is a little closer to the berry source.

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