Desert Bird – Phainopepla

This black desert bird makes no sense but it is beautiful, has a very special diet and is very good at mimicry of about 12 other birds.

The Phainopepla is about the size of the familiar red cardinal and has a crest but the male is all black and females are gray.

As is the case with most birds, the juveniles resemble the females.


One really great online place to see videos of this charmer is HERE.

In flight, you can see they have white patches on their wings.
And unless you are careful, you WILL see them in flight.


Natural History  Phainopepla

Common Name  Phainopepla (fay-no- PEP-la)

Biological Name  Phainopepla nitens

Biological Family   Ptilogonatidae silky flycatchers

Status   Least Concern neither endangered nor threatened


This charming desert songbird, Phainopepla, is never to be forgotten.

Desert Bird Phainopepla

Perched in the branches of mesquite trees alongside a small salt creek, Phainopepla rewarded me with sightings often.Since their primary food is mistletoe which is on the mesquite trees,
I could always count on seeing some of these shining black birds on my walks. They eat elderberry and juniper seeds and mesquite beans too.

When they feed on insects they behave like flycatchers. Really cool to watch.
I first saw Phainopepla while walking in Shoshone, California.
The Phainopepla is a good mimic of other birds, including the red tail hawk.
I wonder if that is a way for it to claim territory and prevent being eaten by a predator.
Phainopepla (which I affectionately called Pepe) nest most often in mesquite trees.

Both parents care for the nest and each other during incubation which is about fifteen days.

Teaching the young birds to eat and fly is another fascinating wildlife observation. These birds are attentive and entertaining. I did not count them but I have read that one Phainopepla is likely to eat about 1100 mistletoe berries each day. And the birds have a unique role in the dispersal of mistletoe.

The seeds pass through their digestive system undigested and are deposited where the Phainopepla perches, roosts, nests or flies.

During the desert season, Phainopeplas are very territorial and that is when you are likely to hear its many calls.

When it is nesting in woodlands it shows a more colony like behavior and you might find as many as 4 pairs of nesting birds in one big tree.

I never observed them nesting. Only feeding and in riparian desert habitat. All year long. So who wants to be a BLACK bird in the desert?

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.