Photo: Bob Steele/Vireo

Phainopepla

Phainopepla nitens

In the desert southwest, Phainopeplas and mistletoe rely on each other. Phainopeplas feed heavily on berries of this parasitic plant; after the berries pass through the bird's digestive tract, the seeds often stick to branches of mesquite or other trees, where they can sprout new mistletoe clumps. Flocks of these slim and elegant birds may gather to feed on seasonally abundant crops such as elderberries. At other times, Phainopeplas are solitary, each bird defending a few small trees with several large clumps of mistletoe, and attempting to drive away any other fruit-eating birds that come close.
Conservation status Numbers vary from year to year, but overall population seems stable.
Family Silky-flycatchers
Habitat Desert scrub, mesquites, oak foothills, mistletoe clumps. Occurs in many lowland and foothills habitats, moving around with availability of berries. Often in Sonoran desert areas and mesquite groves at various times of year; at some seasons, moves into chaparral, streamside trees, and oak woodlands.
In the desert southwest, Phainopeplas and mistletoe rely on each other. Phainopeplas feed heavily on berries of this parasitic plant; after the berries pass through the bird's digestive tract, the seeds often stick to branches of mesquite or other trees, where they can sprout new mistletoe clumps. Flocks of these slim and elegant birds may gather to feed on seasonally abundant crops such as elderberries. At other times, Phainopeplas are solitary, each bird defending a few small trees with several large clumps of mistletoe, and attempting to drive away any other fruit-eating birds that come close.
Photo Gallery
  • adult male
  • adult female
  • adult male
  • juvenile
Feeding Behavior

Feeds on berries mostly while perched; also hovers briefly to pluck berries or insects. Catches insects in mid-air by flying out from a perch and pursuing them in quick fluttery flight.


Eggs

2-3, rarely 4. Grayish, heavily dotted with lavender and black. Incubation is by both parents, 14-16 days. Male noted to do most of incubation during daylight hours. Young: Fed by both parents, receiving mostly crushed insects at first, then also berries. Young leave the nest about 19-20 days after hatching.


Young

Fed by both parents, receiving mostly crushed insects at first, then also berries. Young leave the nest about 19-20 days after hatching.

Diet

Mostly berries and insects. Mistletoe berries are mainstays of diet when available. Also feeds heavily on berries of elder, buckthorn, and sometimes juniper; in settled areas, eats many berries of pepper trees. Also eats many insects, especially in warmer weather, including beetles, flies, true bugs, and caterpillars.


Nesting

Male displays over nesting territory by flying in high circles and zigzags. In courtship, male may chase female in flight; while perched, male may feed female. Nest: Often placed in center of clump of mistletoe, where it is very difficult to see; sometimes in fork of branch. Nest height varies with habitat, typically low (4-12' above ground) in desert mesquites, higher (up to 50') in streamside oaks or sycamores. Nest, built primarily by male, is a rather small shallow cup of twigs, weeds, leaves, plant fibers, bound together with spiderwebs and lined with animal hair or plant down.

Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
Learn more about these drawings.

Migration

Movements are complex and poorly understood. May nest in spring in the desert and then depart for other areas, possibly to nest again elsewhere.

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Migration

Movements are complex and poorly understood. May nest in spring in the desert and then depart for other areas, possibly to nest again elsewhere.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
Common calls include an up-slurred whistled hoooeet and a low quirk. The short warbled song is rarely heard.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
Learn more about this sound collection.