The Phainopepla (Phainopepla nitens) is an intriguing bird. It is a songbird of deserts and the arid southwest, and the first time I encountered one was last spring in Joshua Tree National Park. But it turns out they can also be found closer to home (my home in the Central Valley, anyway!). Last weekend, I spotted a female Phainopepla in an oak tree along the Stanislaus River, near the town of Knight's Ferry.
The name Phainopepla is Greek and means "shining robe," in reference to the male's black, shiny plumage. Females are a more subdued gray, but still have the crest and red-orange eyes characteristic of the species. These birds are found throughout the southwestern part of the United States, and south into Mexico. Their preferred habitat is desert, chaparral and riparian woodlands. According to Cornell's All About Birds, Phainopeplas exhibit different breeding behavior in different territories. In the desert, they are very territorial, but in woodlands, they nest colonially, with multiple nesting pairs sharing one tree. I wonder if this correlates with resource availability?
Phainopeplas are often seen perching prominently on the tops of trees and shrubs. In flight, adult male Phainopeplas flash bright white wing patches, which contrast sharply with their black plumage and make identification easy. They feed heavily on mistletoe berries, eating over 1,000 individual berries per day when they are abundant. Phainopeplas will also feed on other berries, as well as insects caught in mid-air.