Male phainopepla

Phainopepla – the mistletoe bird

It’s a cute little bird – the Phainopepla.  A member of the tropical Silky Flycatcher family, males are a shiny black and females a charcoal grey.  Both have red eyes and a feathery crest.   They are quite noticeable in the desert, as males like to perch at the very top of mesquite trees (like the one above).

Although they will occasionally dart after flying insects during the summer, the mainstay of their diet is mistletoe berries.  They form a symbiotic relationship with desert mistletoe; the seeds of the mistletoe pass through the gut of the birds undamaged and when the birds defecate, they plant the seeds on the branches below.  In return for their dispersal services, they get a plentiful food supply (in most years), and a place to nest.

Female Phainopepla eating mistletoe berries

Female Phainopepla caught in the act of eating berries of desert mistletoe.

The mesquites and Palo Verdes, the primary hosts of desert mistletoe, might not be so thrilled with this arrangement.  Although desert mistletoe is considered a hemiparasite because in also photosynthesizes, it does take water and nutrients from the host trees.   During periods of stress, like the extended drought we are in, trees with a heavy load of mistletoe might even succumb.  Several of the mistletoe-infested mesquites on my property have died in the last few years.

Mesquites with heavy mistletoe infestation

Heavy infestation of desert mistletoe in a couple of mesquites.  The trees are still alive, but dormant for the winter.

Mistletoe provides food and shelter for a number of birds.  I’ve seen quail and doves feeding on the berries, and found nests of Cactus Wrens and Verdins within the clumps.  Some internet sources actually encourage people to add clumps of mistletoe to their trees to provide food for the birds.  Seems like a pretty cruel thing to do to your trees.

Both males and females call.  Here is the call of a female Phainopepla, with background music by House Sparrows, doves, Curve-billed Thrashers, and Cactus Wrens:

The song is rarely heard, but recently a male Phainopepla started singing away and I was lucky enough to record it.


More recordings of phainopeplas are featured on the album, Sonoran Desert Spring.

Reference: Phillips, S.J. and P.W. Comus. 2000. A natural history of the Sonoran Desert. Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Press, Tucson.

Recording notes: Recorded with Sony PCM-M10 and Audio Technica AT897 mic with FEL SK3.5 pre-amp.  Recording subject to high and low pass filtering and normalization.

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