The phainopepla, also sometimes referred to as the Northern phainopepla, belongs to the small family of silky-flycatchers. Though their overall population appears stable in its native region, yet their numbers fluctuate from year to year. Its common name comes from Greek in which ‘phain pepla’ means “shining robe” suggesting the shiny plumage of the male.
Species: P. nitens
The scientific name for Phainopepla is Phainopepla nitens.
Adult phainopepla possesses a slender body that is 15 to 20 centimetres in length. They have a long tail; along with a notable and distinct looking crest. They have a short, this bill that is slightly greyish.
The colour of the male is entirely black, and it possesses a white wing patch. On the other hand, females are plain grey with a light grey wing patch. Both male and female have red eyes. The look of the juveniles resembles that of the female.
This bird is common across desert ecosystems. In general, they are found in riparian areas, washes; as well as other habitats which hold up to arid scrubs.
At times, scattered population are found in coastal regions where they show a tendency to inhabit riparian oak and oak chaparral forestlands.
Phainopepla nitens’ geographical range includes central California, the southern part of New Mexico, western Texas, south to Baja, Mexico, southern Utah, and southern Nevada. During winter months, they are found in central Arizona, southern California, southern New Mexico, southern Nevada, as well as in southern Texas.
The primary food source of this bird is the mistletoe berries, and they have quite a unique relationship with this evergreen plant with white berries. This hemiparasitic plant depends on this bird to plant itself in another tree branch. This bird eats the berry and digests it without harming the seed that eventually comes out with their droppings. With the right conditions, it starts to germinate in other trees. This bird is mostly seen in a congregate of almost hundreds. They primarily forage in shrubs. They are capable of catching flying insects. At times, they hover in the air and turn abruptly while going after prey. Their behaviour sometimes depends on their habitat. In the desert region, they are mostly territorial, while in the woodlands, they are colonial, with many breeding pairs sharing one tree during mating season.
Their nesting start in early spring. The mating display includes males flying in zigzags or in circles over its nesting territory. Male often go after a female in flight, and often feed the female. The nest is mostly made in mistletoe plant, or sometime in branch fork.
The nesting behaviour actually varies in different habitats. Nests are generally low in desert mesquites, while in waterside sycamores or oaks, it tends to be a lot higher. The nest is made by the male with leaves, twigs, plant fibres, and weeds among others. Females lay 2 to 3 eggs that are grayish-white or pinkish in colour, dotted with black and lavender. Both male and female take part in the incubation process that lasts for 15 days on average. During the day, males do most of the incubation. Both parents feed young ones. At first, they mostly give crushed insects; and then crushed berries. The juvenile leaves the nest after three weeks from hatching.
Phainopepla’s diet mostly consists of the white berries of mistletoe plant. They have a unique mechanism in which they are able to shuck off the berry skin and consume the skin separately that helps them indigestion.
As of now, they are the only known bird species that have the ability to do this. When these berries are less abundant, they consume little insects, vegetables and fruits.
The primary call of Phainopeplas is a low-pitched ‘wurpp’ characterized by tail flicking, and often moving from side to side. At times, they can be heard with a harsh, low-pitched ‘chuur.’ Both male and female give short and soft calls during courtship. During the nest-making process, both male and female rapidly click the bill giving a snapping sound. This species is also known to mimic the calls of 12 different birds, including Colaptes auratus (the northern flicker) or Buteo jamaicensis (the red-tailed hawk). It is believed that these mimic calls are made to confuse a potential predator.
This species is listed in the ‘Least Concern’ category by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
At times, individuals migrate to places as far as Canada, with one such specimen recorded in Brampton, in Ontario, Canada, in 2009.
Even though its overall population is stable, but as per the North American Breeding Survey, from 1966 to 2014, their population has slightly gone down.
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