Phainopepla’s Winter Tale

A breeding pair of Phainopeplas near Longstreet Spring

A breeding pair of Phainopeplas near Longstreet Spring

Stories:  During the winter, the upland bosque around Ash Meadows is very quiet, with one notable exception. Learning the many stories of the refuge and its wild inhabitants is a fascinating element of this soundscape project. A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to spend a few hours observing and recording one of those wild creatures. This post tells what I know of the story of the beautiful migratory songbird named Phainopepla (Phainopepla nitens), pronounced “fay-no-pehp-lah.”

In Greek its name translates to “shinning robe.” The males are silky, shiny black with a prominent top crest and red eyes. Like the common raven, they are one of the few creatures of the desert that are colored solid black. The females are a dull, camouflaged gray. I’ve wondered about the dimorphic differences common between the sexes of the avian world. From what I have read, it’s simply a matter of protection for females to be camouflaged while they incubate eggs and raise chicks. In the wintertime, the male Phainopepla can be seen perched on the highest branch of a mesquite tree in the low deserts of the southwest, preferably a mesquite tree laden with mistletoe berries – his favorite food. In fact, the mistletoe berry provides all of the nutrients and hydration he needs for the winter months, which is why he aggressively guards his territory. I read that his daily bread is the equivalent of 1,100 tiny berries. This particular specimen claimed an area around the Longstreet Spring and Cabin, singing its solemn, simple song with an occasional trill. There was another male about a hundred yards away, which I suppose is the extent of their territory. The area around Longstreet Spring provides good wintertime habitat for Phainopepla because there are plenty of distressed mesquite trees. Mistletoe is a botanical parasite that thrives on weaker trees. The bosque around Longstreet Spring suffers, severely, from failed agricultural activities dating as far back as 50 years ago, leaving behind scraped, barren soil that has yet to recover. What was a bust for the farmer became a bounty for the shiny, black bird.

Phainopeplas migrate between seasons, but in an unusual manner. Most other birds spend their summer in northern climes then migrate across the latitudes to spend winter in Central and South America. Phainopeplas migrate vertically, flying up to spend summer in the cool, high mountain forests of the many sky islands common throughout the desert southwest. In the cooler months they migrate down to spend winter in the warm, low deserts, perhaps only migrating a few miles. What’s really unique about this pair is that, in good years, they will raise two clutches of eggs, one clutch in each of their seasonal homes. In the winter, Phainopeplas are territorial and live exclusively on berries; in the summer they change their diet to insects and become communal, sometimes living in colonies of three or four in one tree.

So, this coming summer, I’ll attempt to locate a summer colony and make a recording. Anyone know where I should look?


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