The Peppy Phainopepla

December 19, 2014 at 6:45 am (Bird photography, Birds - California, California, National Parks, Nature, Nature photography, Southwest Birds, Wildlife) (, , , )

Male phainopepla in flight

Male phainopepla in flight

The hard-to-pronounce word (fain-o-PEP-la) is Greek for “shining robe” according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  These unique birds of the Southwest congregate in areas of abundant mistletoe, and they typically eat more than 1,000 of those berries each day.

Phainopepla on mistletoe

Phainopepla on mesquite with mistletoe

In Big Bend National Park, Texas they fed on mistletoe growing in juniper trees.  Here in Southern California, red mistletoe tends to grow in mesquite trees, hence its name mesquite mistletoe, Phoradendron californicum (or desert mistletoe).  The Indian Cove area of Joshua Tree National Park, as well as Mission Creek Preserve in Desert Hot Springs have clusters of this favored semi-parasitic plant, and you can hear the soft whistles of the phainopepla in these mesquite groves.

Male phainopepla

Male phainopepla

In the silky flycatcher family, they also do “hawk” for flying insects, flashing their white underwing patches as they pursue their prey.


Phainopepla male in mesquite shrub

Apparently they have alternate lives in forests, too, and can have two separate breeding cycles in a year.  Plus they can mimic the song or calls of other bird species.  Since my experience with phainopeplas has been minimal, I have not observed this.  But if Cornell says it’s so, it must be true!

Female phainopepla

Female phainopepla

As with most other birds, the female is less showy than her mate.


Native peoples ate the mistletoe berries after they turned translucent, but the rest of the plant is highly toxic.  I suppose desert folk can hang the red twigs during the holiday season, hoping for an opportunity to smooch, so beware!

Mesquite mistletoe and berries

Mesquite mistletoe and berries

And have a berry merry Christmas.  (hee hee)

Text and photographs copyrighted by Cindy McIntyre

Feel free to reblog or share


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  1. Vassa Neimark said,

    Thank you for sharing. I enjoy your creative-ness and learn so much from you. I am grateful. sincerely Vassa >

  2. Bella Remy Photography said,

    A very cool bird Cindy! Wonderful capture!

  3. Steve Schwartzman said,

    Thanks for the introduction to the Phainopepla. I know almost nothing about birds, so every little bit helps. I do know something about etymology, so I’ll point out that the Greek root in the first part of Phainopepla appears to be the same as the one in the first part of the word phenomenon. The basic sense is ‘to shine.’

  4. DesertAbba said,

    That’s the Phainopepla we’ve come to know and enjoy and you’ve caught our eye with his so well!

  5. Jet Eliot said,

    Wonderful photos of this showy bird, and great info too.

  6. Cindy McIntyre said,

    Thanks for all your comments! Birds are so cool!

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