Years ago I was camping near Alamogordo, New Mexico. A quiet, questioning “whurp?” was coming from the desert scrub. I was born and raised in Kansas and was still living there at the time, so I knew it was something strange that I had never seen before. Eventually a slim, dark bird with a shaggy crest popped up into view. A Phainopepla! I had only ever seen them in photographs before, but I knew immediately what it was because they are unmistakable. Now that I live in central New Mexico near the Rio Grande, I am lucky enough to see these interesting birds all the time. Just last week I saw a pair feeding young in my backyard. They enjoy eating the wolfberries growing behind my house and flycatching in my weedy lawn.
There really is nothing quite like a Phainopepla. Members of the silky-flycatcher family, they’re not closely related to any other bird in the United States. The name “Phainopepla” is from a Greek word which means “black shining robe”. If you ever get a chance to see a male Phainopepla in the sunlight, you’ll be impressed by the iridescent bluish sheen to his silky attire. The females are just as unique-looking as the males with their dull slate-gray plumage. Both male and female have bright red eyes and of course, that shaggy crest which is why they are sometimes called black cardinals. Their dark silhouette, long tail, and bright white wing patches make them easily recognizable in flight.
Phainopeplas breed at two different times a year in two completely different habitats. Beginning as early as February, Phainopeplas breed in high desert regions, seeking out Desert Mistletoe berries. Later in the summer, Phainopeplas breed in woodlands and riparian habitats. For years it was a mystery whether the same individual birds were breeding in both habitats, or if there were two distinct populations. New banding studies show that birds captured on the desert breeding grounds are the same ones recaptured later in the year in the woodlands. This “itinerant breeding” strategy is only known to occur in two other bird species.
If you want to see Phainopeplas in the Southwest, look for mistletoe. Various types of this parasitic plant can be found on cottonwoods, junipers, willows, mesquites, and other riparian and desert upland tree species, and the berries are a Phainopepla’s favorite food. In fact, a Phainopepla will eat more than 1,100 mistletoe berries a day! They also eat other types of small berries, as well as a considerable number of flying insects.
Phainopeplas have a stable population and are even increasing in the westernmost portion of their range. Their population can fluctuate from year to year, particularly after a harsh winter when mistletoe berries are destroyed. If you want to help Phainopeplas and other southwestern birds, consider using native plants for your landscaping, particularly shrubs that produce small berries and provide cover from predators and the harsh desert sun. Weedy, unmowed areas and brushpiles can attract flying insects that are beneficial to almost all bird species during the breeding season.