Denizens Of The Desert:
Desert Bighorn And Near Relatives
Battle Of The Reptiles
Latrodectus, The Poisonous
Le Conte Thrasher
Gnatcatchers And Verdins
Desert White–crowned Sparrow
Read More Articles About: Denizens Of The Desert
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
WHAT memories of lovely desert spring days the name of this bird awakens! One can hardly recall a walk then taken when one or more of these stately bird sentinels were not seen gracing the topmost twigs of some mesquite tree. The generic Greek name phainopepla, which means "shining coat," was certainly well chosen for this black-feathered aristocrat. To give him an air of dignity beyond that which his elegant form of body furnished him, Nature adorned his head with a magnificent crest and provided that the eye should be a flaming red. On each wing of the male bird there is a clear white wing patch, and when he flies upward the effect of the contrast of color is most wonderful. All these characters give this bird an individuality which is very marked and he becomes to us one of the easiest of birds to identify. The female phainopepla, like the female Brewer blackbird, lacks somewhat the beauty of her mate in that her coat is only a deep brownish gray color and the wing patch is but a dull white.
The phainopeplas are characteristic birds of the Lower Sonoran Life-Zone of all our Southwestern deserts. Some individuals, it is true, occasionally stray outward to the coast during the spring to nest in the sycamores and to eat the scarlet pepper berries, but the majority of them remain the year round in the mesquite thickets and juniper mesas of the deserts.
So close is the relation, on the Colorado Desert, between the phainopeplas and the mesquite tree that it may be safely stated that the distribution of this bird there is coextensive with that of the mesquites. Where there are no mesquites you will find no phainopeplas. In the branches of these trees grow the great clumps of the mistletoe (Phoradendron californica) which bears those beautiful pink and pearly berries of which the phainopeplas are so fond. During parts of the year they seem to live almost exclusively upon them. In the early spring the inconspicuous blossoms of the mistletoe attract myriads of insects and on these the birds gorge to fatness.
It is the most natural thing that the phainopeplas would choose as sites for their nests these trees where they find so much of their food. Generally the bird-home is built on a horizontal branch of a mesquite tree just under the mistletoe clump, where it will be well screened from the eye of gazers by the myriads of down-hanging, blossoming stems. The rather small nest in many ways resembles that of the wood pewee. It is made entirely of fine materials bound together with pieces of spider web and is lined with wool from tomentose plants found in the vicinity. The eggs are an ashy-blue color, thickly covered with bluish and black spots, and generally number two to the nest: occasionally there are three. The question here arises: Why so few eggs? Reasoning by inference it may be said that it is probably because the phainopeplas have few natural enemies. Generally Nature provides that animals with many natural enemies should rear many young. Thus the quail which nests on the ground lays from eight to fourteen eggs for each setting. The almost universally hunted hares are very prolific. But the band-tailed pigeons, which build their nests high and roost in the trees, lay but one egg.
The phainopeplas which remain throughout the year on the desert breed much earlier than those which nest nearer the coast. In such locations as Banning and Beaumont, California, which are close to the desert, and yet high enough to have a later season, the desert-reared young are often found sporting among the trees when the adults which have come to the higher zones to nest are just beginning to incubate their eggs.
The male phainopepla is a very helpful mate, always taking a very conspicuous part in constructing the nest and rearing the young; in-deed, he often does the major part of the work, the female only passively showing her interest by sitting on some twig close by and looking on approvingly. Instances are recorded in which the male, having lost his mate through some mishap, took entire charge of the nestlings and brought them up until they were able to care for themselves.
Sometimes phainopeplas consort in small flocks, but most often you see individuals perched solitarily like shrikes on the tips of high mesquite twigs where the situation offers a good lookout. Like the shrikes, too, they have a way of occupying such positions for unusually long periods. There they sit often for a quarter of an hour at a time preening their feathers and stretching their wings, otherwise remaining almost motionless and in silence except as at frequent intervals they repeat their mellow flutelike whistle.
This call note is a simple one, but not without character; for, like the phoebe's melancholy and plaintive note, it has a pleasing and soothing quality which admirably harmonizes with the quiet beauty of the landscape. During the nesting season this simple note is supplemented by a subdued but rich warble that has many elements of real music.
My many observations of this silky-plumaged bird lead me to believe that he is almost as good an insect catcher as the phoebe. True, he is not so diligent a worker, but when he sallies forth from his perch and snaps at a fly he seldom misses it. His habit of often returning to the twig from which he has darted reminds one strongly of the ways of the flycatchers. This similarity of habit early gave the phainopepla the common name of "black-crested flycatcher," but since this appellation is misleading, its use has been discouraged by ornithologists.