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These birds are a common sight in Mexico and the southwestern side of the United States.

The only member of the mostly Central American group known as silky-flycatchers to regularly occur in the U.S., the Phainopepla is related to waxwings, with which it shares a dietary affinity for berries. Unusual movements from the Phainopepla’s desert breeding range early in the year to wooded canyons in the summer need further study.

Phainopeplas are solitary during the winter months, and defend feeding territories. Courtship takes place very early in the year, and both the male and female help with nesting duties. Phainopepla nests appear to be only very rarely parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds.


Description of the Phainopepla


The Phainopepla is a crested flycatcher with red eyes.  Males are a glossy black.

Large white wing patches visible in flight.


Females are gray instead of black.


Photograph © Greg Lavaty.

Seasonal change in appearance



Juveniles resemble females.


Desert scrub and foothills.


Berries and insects.


Forages by perching, hovering, or flycatching.


Resident in parts of the southwestern U.S., with some birds moving slightly farther north to breed.

Fun Facts

The Phainopepla is a member of the silky-flycatchers, a group of tropical birds related to waxwings.

Phainopeplas roost in dense trees for shelter from the wind and cool nighttime temperatures.


A short warble is given rarely.


Similar Species

  • Male is distinctive.


The nest is cup of twigs and other plant materials placed in a mistletoe clump or branch fork.

Number: 2-3. ?
Color: Gray with darker markings.

Incubation and fledging:  ?-
Young hatch at 14-16 days.   ?-
Young fledge (leave the nest) in 19-20 days after hatching but remain with the adults for some time.


Bent Life History of the Phainopepla

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.

Bent Life History for the Phainopepla – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.



On the deserts of the Southwestern United States, the glossy black phainopepla, with its arboreal and aerial habits, contrasts strikingly with its prevailingly tawny or grayish neighbors, which scurry over the sun-baked soil or seek the shelter of the sparse shrubbery. The phainopepla, however, also finds congenial surroundings in parks and estates whose semitropic verdure somehow seems a more appropriate setting for the bird’s graceful, refined beauty and gentle manner.

The range of this subspecies extends from central California, southern Utah, and central western Texas southward through Lower California and northwestern Mexico, the typical form occurring farther south in Mexico. Some of the birds winter locally within the United States, principally in the southern deserts of California and Arizona. On the coastal slope of southern California the phainopepla is ordinarily found neither in the mountains nor in the lower valleys, but rather on the oak-covered mesas near the foothills and long watercourses where arborescent shrubs are common. It has, however, been reported by James Stevenson (1933) from an altitude of 6,200 feet near Mount Pinos, on June 12, 1932, and, more surprisingly, a female was seen by L. E. Hoffman (1933) at an altitude of 5,500 feet in the San Gabriel Mountains on December 30, 1932, with a foot of snow on the ground. East of the principal mountain ranges of southern California the phainopepla occurs mainly in the mesquite association, though W. E. D. Scott (1888) reported meeting with it at every point in south-central Arizona visited by him up to an altitude of about 5,000 feet. In connection with his studies of the Lower Colorado Valley, Dr. Joseph Grinnell (1914) wrote: “Everything indicated that this bird was common as a permanent resident of the region. It was, however, closely restricted to two narrow belts paralleling the river, one on each side; namely, as constituting the mesquite association. The close coincidence of the range of the bird with the plant association in question was here clearly due solely to the preferred food afforded in constant and abundant quantity by the berries of the mistletoe parasitic upon the mesquite. * * * In certain places, as on the Arizona side above Mellen, and on the California side opposite Cibola, this bird was, within the riparian strip, the most abundant single species.~~ The outstanding attributes of this bird, in the eyes of those who named it, are revealed by a translation of its scientific name: Phainopepla (fi’ n-pep’h), from two Greek words meaning “shining robe”; niteus, a Latin word also meaning “shining”; lepida, from the Latin and meaning “charming.” Probably no one has more vividly expressed the general impression produced by the phainopepla than did Bradford Torrey (1904), after making its acquaintance in southern Arizona:

What I call the Phainopepla’s elegance comes partly from its form, which is the very perfection of shapeliness, having in the highest degree that elusive quality which in semi-slang phrase is designated as ‘style ;” partly from its motions, all prettily conscious and in a pleasing sense affected, like the movements of a dancing-master; and partly from its color, which is black with the most exquisite bluish sheen, set off in the finest manner by broad wing-patches of white. These wing-patches are noticeable, furthermore, for being divided into a kind of network by black lines. It is for this reason, I suppose, that they have a peculiar gauzy look (I speak of their appearance while in action) such as I have never seen in the case of any other bird, and ;vhich often made me think of the ribbed, translucent wings of certain dragon tiles.

Doubtless this peculiar appearance was heightened to my eyes, because of the mincing, wavering, over-buoyant method of flight (the wings being carried unusually high) to which I have alluded, and which always suggested to me the studied movements of the dance. I think I never saw one of the birds so far forget itself as to take a direct, straightforward course from one point to another. No matter where they might be going, though the flight were only a matter of a hundred yards, they progressed always in pretty zigzags, making so many little, imnexpected, indecisive tacks and turns by the way, butterfly fashion, that you began to wonder where they would finally come to rest.

Spring: On the Pacific slope of California, where few of the phainopeplas winter, they make their appeilrallce in numbers during the latter half of April, as a rule. They are usually first noticed as small companies of males, which perch on the tops of trees and make frequent, seemingly aimless flights. This would suggest some type of courtship activity, except that few females are seen at that time. At no time during the season, in fact, are the females nearly as much in evidence as the males; unless the former are actually much fewer in numbers, they are comparatively quiet and inconspicuous in their habits.

Nesting: On the deserts nesting begins 2 to 3 months earlier than on the coastal slope. At Palm Springs, according to M. French Gilman (1903), “it would seem that most of the young are hatched in March and April and that in some instances nest building must begin in the latter part of February.” Dr. Grinnell (1914) found both eggs and young in April in the Lower Colorado Valley. West of the mountains, on the other hand, nesting begins during the latter part of May, while June witnesses by far the greatest portion of this activity, which seems to end in July, with but one brood raised. It has been surmised that a first nesting might take place on the desert and a second in the coastal region, but Mr. Gilman continues: “Possibly some of the birds rear two broods a year, but from the fact that some adult birds fail to pair and nest in this vicinity [Banning], I am inclined to think that but one brood is raised. Probably those hatched in March on the desert return there to nest the following March; while those hatched in the San Gorgonio pass, in June and July, nest there the following summer.” Dr. Alden H. Miller (1933) doubts that any coastward migration occurs after the early desert nesting period, remarking: “In my experience I have been unable to detect any general exodus of breeding Phainopeplas from the deserts even in May when adults and young are common in these regions.”

In the desert portion of the phainopepla’s breeding range, nests have been reported in mesquites, cottonwoods, hackberries, and willows, for the most part. In coastal California, sycamores, oaks, and orange trees are frequently used, together with many other trees and tall shrubs. Near the Papago Indian Reservation in southern Adzona, Herbert W. Brandt (MS.) says “it preferred for its nesting tree the densely foliaged hackberry, where an abundance of concealment is offered for its comparatively small, well camouflaged nest. The latter is saddled on a small fork near the outer margin of the foliage, usually in the middle third of the tree. In the drier areas small mesquites may be occupied, especially if the tree contains a dense clump of mistletoe. Then the bird builds doxvn in the center of this common parasite, mounting its home astraddle of the supporting limb.” In orange trees about 10 to 15 feet high the nests are placed in the upper third of the tree, in the outer foliage but usually well concealed from an observer on the ground. Twenty-one nests at Azusa, Calif., most of them in orange trees, were situated at heights of 6 to 11 feet, averaging 8½ feet.

Mrs. Harriet Williams Myers (1908), who watched the building of many nests in sycamore trees, observed that nearly all of them were in upright crotches. A large proportion of the nests mentioned by others are described as placed in forks, either vertical or horizontal. Reporting on San Diego County observations, F. E. Blaisdell (1893) says: “The nests are placed at varying distances from the ground, from four to even fifty feet. The materials used are prickly or viscid. The fruit and leaves of some of the members of the Borage family have the preference, together with the leaves and down of species of Onaphaijuin, all being bound together by spiders’ web; the interior of the nest is thinly lined with bits of wool, hair and down.” Also in San Diego County were the nests described by Florence Merriam Bailey (1896):

By following the birds as they flew from the pepper trees, I found four nests. They were all on the border or in the midst of dense chaparral. * * * all were built in low oaks, two not eight feet above the ground, and two under five. One was In a narrow socket between two small branches, and another was placed on a horizontal limb. All the nests were broken tip, and the three that I took after they were deserted were made of about the same materials: small bits of plant stems, oak blossoms and other small flowers. The materials were so fine that, although I sat within a few yards of the nests when the birds were at work, I rarely saw them bring anything, except in tho few instances when they came with grass dangling from their bills.

As soon as I began to watch the Phainopepla’s nests, I discovered that the males did almost all the building. This was especially surprising because in direct opposition to the laws of protective coloration, for their black plumage and white wing markings made them striking figures as they went about their work.

As Mrs. Bailey states, nest-building seems to be almost exclusively the duty of the male. The female may occasionally visit and carefully inspect the unfinished nest, but according to most observers she seldom offers any active assistance, and may actually be driven away by her mate. That there are individual variations in this regard, however, is indicated by observations of Dr. Barton XV. Evermann (1882) in Ventura County, Calif. He says: “Two or three pairs of these Flycatchers were soon detected in their nest-building, and I watched them for several evenings with much interest. Both male and female worked at the nest, each bringing and placing its own material.” In the light of present knowledge, it seems likely that he may have concentrated his attention on one pair and assumed their cooperation to be typical of all.

The nest is notably shallow and appears small for the size of the bird, though neat and compactly constructed. Mr. Brandt (MS.) writes: “The five nests measured by us varied but little in size and measured about 2½ inches in total height, ~½ inches in outside diameter, and 2º inches in inside diameter, while the U-shaped bowl was 1½ inches deep.” Measurements of a nest at Tombstone, Ariz., as given in F. C. Willard’s notes, are somewhat smaller: Diameter outside 3% inches, inside 2½ inches; depth outside 1½ inches, inside 1 inch. Dr. Evermann (1882) remarked that “the cavity in most of them is more nearly the form of an ellipse than a circle. The wall of the nest is generally thicker at one end of the ellipse than elsewhere.”

In parts of central Lower California the breeding season seems to be intermediate between those of the two distinct regions in the United States, as indicated in a report by Griffing Bancroft (1930):

These birds are plentiful In JosS Maria Cafion, but they become progressively less so as one travels eastward. They are gregarious to the extent of perhaps a dozen pairs in especially favored spots where the mesquite is at its best and food supply is exceptional. They are absent, locally, from altitudes of over a thousand feet.

The breeding season opens the middle of April but does not reach its height for another month. The season is U weeks inter than is that of the phainopepla of the Colorado Desert, but it is slightly in advance of that of the birds of the San Diegan District. In California we expect to find the nests resting against the larger limbs of trees. In the San Ignaclo region nearly all were placed in mistletoe or suspended beneath it. That condition, however, is not peculiar to this region, for I have observed the same thing near Ensenada.

The nests were typical, small and built of fine gray plant down reinforced with tiny twigs and leaves. They were ordinarily placed S to 12 feet above the ground, though some were much higher.

The number of eggs in a set is either two or three, the latter being more comwon and an exception to the very general rule that the San Ignaclo birds lay more sparingly than do their northern counterparts. The variations in the individual eggs, in shape, size, and markings, were pronounced. Some were practically spherical and others extremes of elongation.

With the laying of the eggs the female begins to assume a more direct responsibility in the nesting operations, though the duty of incubation seems to fall principally to the male, at least during the daylight hours. The birds are rather easily disturbed while on the nest, and they fly about with anxious cries as long as the intruder remains near.

Eggs: Mr. Blaisdell (1893) says: “The eggs are two (frequently), three (usually), or four (rarely), in number.” While sets of four seem to be exceedingly unusual, the relative frequency of two and three egg sets may be in part a matter of locality. In relating his early experiences in Ventura County, Calif., Dr. Evermann (1822) wrote:

Six of the seven nests contained three eggs each, the other but two. Dr. Cooper and Capt. l3endire, the only naturalists who nppear to have found the nest of this species before me, never found more than two eggs in a set. Dr. Cooper found a single nest near Fort Mojave, on April 27. Capt. Bendire, in the season of 1872, found fourteen nests in the vicinity of Tucson, Arizona, and not one contained more than two eggs, “and in three instances the nest contained but a single egg and the bird hard setting upon that.” * * * He says: “The small number found by me Is unquestionably due to the fact that in southern Arizona they raise two and perhaps three broods, while in California, where we found them, they raise but one.”

With respect to the last statement, the evidence as to the number of broods raised in southern Arizona is not entirely clear. Ref erring to the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, Mr. Scott (1885) says: “That there is a wide difference in the time of the breeding of different pairs in the same locality cannot be doubted, but my experience leads me to believe that here, at least, only one brood is raised during the season.” Later, however, he writes (1888): “It apparently breeds throughout its range, raising at least two broods and probably three.” In the earlier paper, Mr. Scott also states that “the number of eggs would seem to be quite as frequently three as two.” More recent writings on the habits of the species in Arizona cast no further light on the subject.

The measurements of 50 eggs average 22.1 by 16.0 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 25.7 by 16.7, 24.1 by 18.0, 19.3 by 15.2, and 20.4 by 14.7 millimeters.

Young: The incubation period is given by Frank L. Burns (1915) as 16 days and by Frank F. Gander (1927) as 15 days; but two sets timed by the writer hatched in 14 days. W. L. Dawson (1923) says: “The young are hatched upon the fourteenth day after the deposition of the last egg; and they would look much like blackberries a little under-ripe, if their appearance were not relieved by generous tufts of long white down. The edges of the mouth are bright yellow, but the lining proper is flesh-colored. The parents do not feed by regurgitation; but berries are carefully crushed and perhaps invested with parental mucus before being fed.” Mrs. Myers (1908) describes the feeding of the young as follows: “As near as I could tell, berries and tiny insects formed the chief part of the diet. When the birds fed pepper berries, or nightshade, the berries were taken from the mouth down into the neck, and back several times before feeding. In the case of the insects they seemed to be carried in the throat, extending down into the neck, from which they were brought up by a sort of pumping motion, not violent, however~ like the finches.”

In the care of the young the female does at least her full share of the work. In one nest so situated that it could be conveniently watched without alarming the birds, the young were fed by the female only, at intervals of 3 to 6 minutes except during the middle of the day, when longer rest periods were taken.

The aspect of the nestlings is made distinctive by the erect, pointed crest, which begins to develop on the crown with the appearance of the first pinfeathers. They differ from the young of most birds in their willingness to leave the nest and return voluntarily before they are ready to abandon it permanently. Two nestlings frightened from the nest about two days prematurely, returned as soon as they had recovered from their alarm; and Mrs. Myers (1909) tells of one young bird flying and hopping about in the tree for 12 minutes, then flying back to the nest.

The young remain in the nest for about 19 days, a period not only longer than that of the majority of the smaller passerine birds, but apparently much more constant, the shortest time reported being 18 days.

Plumages: On the bodies of the newly hatched young, long white down covers the lower back, fringes, and wings and forms a circlet or halo around the bare crown of the head. Some of the filaments on the wings approximate 1 centimeter in length. The exposed upper surfaces of the body are slaty black, the skin gradually becoming more transparent toward the median lower parts. Pinfeathers begin to appear about one week after hatching, and by the tenth or eleventh day the beginnings of the crest are quite apparent on the forehead. Vestiges of down still cling to the feathers of the head when the young are nearly ready to leave the nest.

The following data have been abstracted from a treatise on the postjuvenal molt, by Dr. Alden 11. Miller (1933)

The sexes are identical in the Juvenal plumage and are extremely similar to the adult female. The body plumage is slightly browner throughout than Is that of the adult female, but this appears to be due In part to the looser structure of the vanes of the feathers of the juvenile, which permits exposure of some of the basal parts of the feathers * * * Contrasted with the adult female, the light-colored edgings on rectrices, on middle, greater, and marginal coverts of the forearm, and on the inner secondaries of juveniles are less definitely set off from the gray parts of these same feathers and are duskier or buffier. The major feathers of the wing and tall are often a lighter shade of dark brown than in adult females.

Dr. Miller shows that there are pronounced individual and geographic variations in the completeness of the postjuvenal or first fall molt. “The admixture of plumage can be adequately studied only in the male Phainopepla. In this sex brown juvenal rectrices, remiges, and coverts stand in sharp contrast with corresponding glossy black feathers gained in the postj uvenal molt. * * * Not infrequently the mixture of plumages and feather types produce grotesquely pied male individuals. * * * It would appear that the immature male Phainopepla has differentiated sexually at the time of the first fall molt sufficiently to stimulate deposition of black pigment in rectrices, remiges, and coverts. If any of these are not molted, there is, of course, no chance for this differentiation to find expression.” The group from coastal and central California averages higher in juvenal feathers than the birds from the desert regions, perhaps because of the earlier breeding of the latter. Of the post juvenal body plumage he says: “The body plumage of females is a nearly uniform olivaceous mouse gray and is not distinguishable from that of adult females. In the first-year male the body plumage is highly variable. * * * The replacement of body feathers proper, in the postjuvenal molt, is as far as known always complete, and the apparent admixture of body plumage is the result entirely of the variety of feather types that may be produced during the course of this molt, not a mixture of feathers of various ages as in the wing and tail.”

Food: The food of the phainopepla consists mainly of various kinds of berries and winged insects, the former undoubtedly predominating. On the deserts the principal portion of its diet, according to many observers, is made up of the berries of mistletoe parasitic upon the mesquite. In the desertlike washes along some of the watercourses of southwestern California is found a buckthorn, Rhainnus emcee, whose small scarlet berries are a favorite food; berries of juniper, elder, and various species of PAws are also said to be eaten. In settled districts the birds are often seen eating the red berries of the peppertree, Schinus molts, which is abundantly planted as an ornamental. Another exotic item of diet highly appreciated by the phainopepla is the rather succulent, sweetish petals of the Paraguay guava, Fei Joe setlowiene. When one of these large shrubs is in bloom late in spring, several of the birds will often congregate in it, busily picking off the petals. I have never seen them show interest in any fruit larger than a small variety of mulberry.

Of its food habits in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson, Ariz., Mr. Scott (1885) says: “All through July and August, and for the greater part of September, the birds remained abundant, feeding on the various berries and small fruits which became ripe as the season progressed, and wherever such fruit as they liked was at all abundant they paid little attention to any other kind of food, though insect life fairly teemed in and about the berries that attracted the birds. They showed a particular fondness for a kind of wild grape, and hunted the country through for such fruit, in parties of from ten to forty.”

Behavior: One may well doubt whether most phainopeplas ever have any contact with the ground during their lives, except perhaps for the purpose of drinking. All their actions plainly express their preference for the air rather than the earth: they perch on the topmost twigs of trees and shrubs, and when going from place to place, their flight is likely to follow a course far above the straight line that is the shortest distance between the two points. The flight, though not rapid, appears leisurely rather than labored, and, as pointed out by Bradford Torrey, previously quoted, it has a peculiarly buoyant quality. When a company of the birds is seen flitting idly about, they strongly suggest a flock of giant butterflies.

The males, particularly, often carry on flycatching activities from elevated perches, sometimes by sallies in regular flycatcher fashion, but frequently by hovering and fluttering about in the air in a seemingly aimless and befuddled manner. It is often difficult to determine whether these peculiar maneuvers represent the prosaic pursuit of food or some odd form of play. It is noticeable that the hunting of winged insects always is conducted at a considerable height and never by low swoops over the ground as is often the case with flycatchers. Mrs. Bailey (1896) further describes some of the habits and mannerisms of the phainopepla:

In feeding, the birds occasionally flew against a bunch of berries, as Ohicadees do, clinging while they ate; and I once saw one hover before a bunch while eating, as a Hummingbird whirrs under a flower. More frequently they lit on a branch from which they could lean over and pick off the fruit at leisure. I never actually saw them eat anything but peppers, but at one time when the brush was full of millers, the birds seemed to be catching them; and they sometimes made short sallies into the air as if for insects. They did this much as a Kingbird does, flying up obliquely and going down the opposite side of the angle.

Their flight was interesting. In leaving the pepper trees to go back to their nesting ground, they uniformly rose obliquely high into the air: sometimes, I should judge, as high as one hundred feet: and then flew on evenly, straight to their destination, several pairs going so far that they would disappear up a side cafion, or, as black specks, would be lost in the fog down the valley. When watching the flight of Phainopeplas, Mourning Doves often passed close beside me, and I was struck by the contrast in motion. The Dove cut the air, swerving to one side as it flashed by, and its free whirling flight served to emphasize the calm, even rowing of the Phainopepla. Occasionally the birds flew In an undecided way, still high and even, but changing their direction by sudden jerks. Frequently, when nearing the nest tree, a male would close his wings and shoot obliquely down, tilting his tail for a brake. One of them used to fly in at a height of about ten feet, waver as he came near, as if slowing up, and then after turning his head to look down and place the nest, tilt down in the usual labored way, his tail pressing the air. Not until he was nearly through building did he discover that it was easier to slow up in time to fly down to the nest.

According to John Cassin (185t), this species, described from Mexico by Swainson in 1838, was first added to the known fauna of the United States by Go!. George A. McCall, inspector general in the United States Army, while on a tour of duty in California in 1852. it is, therefore, interesting to read Colonel McCall’s own impressions of the “black flycatcher,” as given by Cassin:

The first opportunity that I bad for observing the manners of this bird, was afforded me in 1852, while travelling from Voile-cite to EL Ohino, in California. On that occasion, as I left the country bordering the desert, and began to ascend the hills, my route followed the course of a mountain brook, whose clear waters were at Intervals shaded with gnarled and scrubby oaks. In approaching one of these clumps of trees, I remarked a number of dark-colored birds, which afterwards were found to belong to this species, darting upwards from the topmost branches, nnd after diving and pitching about in the air for a moment, returning again to the dead branches with the lively port that proved them to be engaged in the agreeable pastime of taking their insect prey. A nearer approach showed them to be light and graceful on the xving; but less swift and decided in their motions than most of the true Fly-catchers. There were about a dozen in company, and they presented a pleasing sight, as three or four together were constantly either pitching upwards to a considerable height in the air, or gliding silently back to their perches. in these aerial evolutions, the bright spot on the wing which is formed by broad patches of white on the inner webs of six or seven of the quill feathers, and is visible only when the wing is spread, gleamed conspicuously in the sunshine, and formed a fine contrast with the glossy black of the general plumage. I sat upon my horse, watching their movements for some time, and I now perceived that two of their numbers were of a dusky hue, and without the wing spot to which I have referred; but I could discover no difference in their manners or their style of flight. I, therefore, had little doubt of their being adult females; for although at that period of the year (June 20) the young birds might have been well gro~vo, yet there is generally a want of decided character in the unpractised flight of young birds, which betrays them to the sportsman’s eye. * * * Ilowever, on my attempting to approach still nearer, these birds became alarmed, and winging their way to the hill-side, alighted on the scraggy bushes scattered among large projecting rocks, where they resumed their sport, rising lightly into the air and darting about after insects, which seemed to be abundanL I followed: but they were noxv on the psi nyc, and, without permitting me to get within gun-shot, flew from bush to bush, as I advanced, keeping all the while in a loose irregular flock, and still pursuing their sport of fly-catching. In this way they continued to ascend the hills, until the broken character of the ground abruptly stopped my horse. Having, however, dismounted, I clambered over the rocks, and at last succeeded in killing two of them. These wore alike in plumage: black, with the wing spot; and one of them, which I dissected, proved to be a male.

As I journeyed on towards the Sierra Nevada, I met, during several days succeeding, these birds, either in small companies, or singly; and subsequently I found a few individuals between El Chino and Los Angeles; but they were invariably black, with the white wing spot. And I never on any occasion, except the one I have referred to, saw one of those clad in dusky garments, which I had supposed were females.

The accuracy of this account of approximately a century ago is attested by its close agreement in practically every particular with the writings of more modern ornithologists, including the commellts on the apparent scarcity of females. Incidentally, there seems to be no reason to suppose that the phainopepla’s living conditions have changed greatly since that date, except on the sites of cities and towns; food supplies may even have been increased in some places.

Voice: The most frequent utterance is a liquid. quid or perp, repeated at intervals of one or two seconds. This call has rather a worried sound and does, in fact, often indicate anxiety; at times, however, it is kept up almost interminably without ascertainable reason. Other notes of the phainopepla have been we]l described by Mrs. Bailey (1896)

In watching the birds at their nests, I found that they had a numher of calls. The commonest was uttered in the same tone hy hoth male and female, and was like the call of a young Robin. In giving it, they flashed their tails, showing the square corners conspicuously. The male also had a harsh cry of warning, drawn out like ca-rack or ca-ra-ack. In addition, he had a scold and a note suggesting the Meadowlark. The Phainopepla’s ordinary song had some weak squeaking notes, hut it also had phrases of rich blackbird quality, recalling the o-ka-Iee of the marshes. One of these was a high keyed whee’-dle-ah. Other parts could he roughly syllabified as kit-er-aft-at and clLer-nack’-ec. The song in flight was hrlght and animated. I once heard a bird break out as he came down from a sally into the air, and he often flew away from the nest singing. Sometimes I thought he even sang in tbe nest. * * * Indeed, to me the Phainopepla’s song was pleasing in spite of its jumbled notes, not merely because of the flutelike quality of some of its tones, hut pre-eminently hecause of the bright, vivacious way in which it was uttered.

Field marks: Both sexes may be recognized by the high crest, slender form, the flaring end of the tail, and by their characteristic manner of flight. When the male is in flight, the disklike white wing patches contrasting with the otherwise black plumage are unmistakable. Even the nestlings may be rather easily identified by their erect crests. The adults seldom lower their crests: perhaps only when angry or when facing a stiff wind.

Enemies: Obviously, few if any of the phainopepla’s enemies are terrestrial. Although the birds express marked disapproval of cats, it is hard to see how the latter would be able to harm them, except in cases of disabled adults or young birds fallen from the nest. While no reports are at hand, their nests undoubtedly suffer to some extent from the smaller climbing and flying predators. Dr. Herbert Friedmann (1929) lists this species as “apparently a rare victim of the * * * Cowbirds,” with but one record known. Concerning any possible enemies which might attack the adults, there is little information.

To be classed as a persecutor rather than a dangerous enemy, the mockingbird displays an unreasonable spite against the phainopepla, pursuing this inoffensive bird upon every opportunity. Mrs. Myers (1909),telling of the successive nesting failures of a pair of phainopeplas, surmised that abandonment of their nesting sites might well have been the result of persistent persecution by mockingbirds.

With only two or three eggs to the set, and with but one rather slowgrowing brood yearly in some localities, at least, the phainopepla’s mortality rate must be unusually low as compared with that of other passerine birds. The impression received in field observation of the species is definitely that of a shy, timid bird, perhaps even more by reason of its manner than its actions. Possibly this constant attitude of wariness and suspicion is of substantial benefit in prolonging its life span and making unnecessary a high rate of increase.

Fall: Regarding the postbreeding dispersal, Harry S. Swarth (1904), in writing of the Huachuca Mountains in Arizona, says: “About the end of July, 1902, a movement began from the lower valleys up into the mountains, and during August the Phainopeplas were most numerous throughout the oak region, up to about 5000 feet. At this time they were in loose straggling flocks of from six to a dozen birds, young and old together, and were generally seen sitting in the tree tops and feeding for the most part, as flycatchers.”

Most of the phainopeplas leave the Pacific slope of California during the month of August, though stragglers are often seen in September or October, or occasionally in midwinter. Whether some of these individuals winter in the deserts of southeastern California and southern Arizona, or whether they all pass over the desert regions to winter farther south, seems not vet to have been determined.

Range: Southwestern United States and Mexico.

Breeding range: The phainopepla breeds north to central California (Marysville, perhaps the Lassen Peak region, and Murphys) probably southern Nevada (Tempahute Range) ; southwestern Utah (St. George and Zion National Park) ; central Arizona (Campe Verde and the Salt River Wildlife Refuge; wandering north to Keams Canyon) ; southwestern New Mexico (Silver City, Fort Webster, and Elephant Butte) ; and southwestern Texas (Pine Springs, probably). East to southwestern Texas (Pine Springs, Cathedral Mountain, and Boquillas; and has occurred, apparently as a wanderer, as far east as San Antonio) ; Nuevo Le6n (Galeana) ; Hidalgo (Cuesta Tesqueda) Puebla (Tehuactin); and south to Gaxaca (Tehuantepee). West to Oaxaca (Tehuantepec) ; Puebla (Huehuetl~n) ; northwestern Durango (Rosario); Lower California (Cape San Lucas, La Paz, San Fernando, and Ensenada) ; and western California (San Diego, Santa Catalina Island, Santa Barbara, San Antonio Valley, Stockton, and Marysville).

Winter range: While the phainopepla is migratory to some extent, it has been found almost as far north in winter as in summer, and it does not seem possible from present information to outline a definite winter range as distinct from the breeding range.

The range as outlined for the entire species includes two subspecies. The eastern phainopepla (P. n. nitens) occurs from southwestern Texas through eastern Mexico to Ouxaca; the western phainopepla (P. n. lepida) occurs from central California and southwestern New Mexico, south through western Mexico to Durango and southern Lower California.

Egg dates: Arizona: 34 records, April 4 to June 19; 18 records, May 13 to 30, indicating the height of the season.

California: 150 records, February 23 to July 15; 20 records, March 8 to 29; 84 records, June 1 to 30. Mexico: 24 records, April 10 to June 3; 15 records, May 11 to 28.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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