Phainopepla nitens
Range Map

The Phainopepla belongs to a family of birds called “Silky Flycatchers”, a group of birds found most often in tropical Central America. They are the only member of this family we find in the USA. Scientists believe these birds are more closely related to waxwings than to the flycatcher group. Summers find many of these birds migrating into the deserts of southwestern USA and in California, north as far as the lower Sacramento River Valley and the coastal slopes north of the San Francisco Bay. In Mexico they are resident in all of Baja California and from the Texas-New Mexico border, south to central Mexico.

Today, taxonomists call out two subspecies of Phainopepla:

  • P. n. lepida breeds in the southwestern USA from California to western Texas, and in northwestern Mexico including Baja California, Sonora and Chihuahua. Some spend winters south to Tamaulipas and San Luis Potosí.
  • P. n. nitens breeds in southern Texas, and south, across the Mexican Plateau in Chihuahua, Durango, Tamaulipas, and Hidalgo. Some spend winters south to Oaxaca (Mexico).

Phainopeplas will nest in wooded areas and deserts. When they choose a desert home, they are very territorial, chasing all interlopers beyond their boundaries. When nesting in a wooded territory, they are more tolerant of each other’s company. Several pairs may share the same tree for nesting.

The desert dwelling members of this species have adapted their digestive systems to process mistletoe berries. Their gizzards strip the skins from the nutrient poor seeds and pass the hard seed cores out of their system in about twelve minutes. They process over a thousand seeds in a day in this fashion. I’ve often seen great piles of digested seeds deposited in the deserts where I’ve met these birds.

I’ve enjoyed hosting Phainopeplas at my Poway home in the past. A few years ago, I had a pair stay on my property throughout the spring and summer seasons. While I didn’t look for a nest, I think it’s fair to assume they raised a family there.

Most of my encounters with these birds have come in San Diego County, though Arizona and Texas have blessed me with some of my favorite memories of these elegant birds. Both males and females have fiery red eyes. Showy jet-black male Phainopeplas, with their crested crowns raised, are impressive. Females are every bit as handsome as their mates, but adorned with silvery gray, rather than the shiny black we see in the males.

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