Phainopepla nitens

A crested songbird of the deserts and arid woodlands of the southwestern United States and Mexico, the Phainopepla is unique in taxonomy, distribution, and behavior. It is particularly notable for its enigmatic pattern of breeding twice each year, in two different habitats.

Cool Facts

Photo taken from:
The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America by David Allen Sibley
  • The Phainopepla, when pursued by predators or handled by humans, mimics the calls of other birds; imitations of at least 13 species have been recorded.
  • An individual Phainopepla eats at least 1,100 mistletoe berries per day, when they are available.
  • The name "Phainopepla" (pronounced fay-no-PEP-la) comes from the Greek for "shining robe," a fitting characterization of the shiny, jet-black plumage of the adult male.
  • The Phainopepla exhibits strikingly different behaviors in its two habitats. In the desert, it is territorial, actively defending nesting and foraging sites, while in the woodlands it is colonial, with as many as four nesting pairs sharing one large tree.
  • The Phainopepla rarely drinks water, even though research indicates that it loses about 95 percent of its body mass in water per day. Instead, it gets the water it needs from its diet of mistletoe.


Adult Description

  • Medium-sized songbird.
  • Tall, wispy crest.
  • Slender, with long tail.
  • Male shiny black.
  • Female all gray.

Immature Description

Immature resembles adult female, but more brownish, and with brown eyes.
Range Map
Taxonomic Hierarchy


© 2003 Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
     Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Aves
Order: Passeriformes
Family: Ptilogonatidae
Genus: Phainopepla
Species: Phainopepla nitens
Call a rising "wurp." Song complex, with at least 14 different identifiable elements, though notes and phrases often seem weak and disjointed. Includes a sprightly, whistled "wheeda-lay"

Identification and Information
See Anatomy of a Bird
  • Length Range: 20 cm (7.75 in)
  • Weight: 23 g (0.8 oz)
  • Size: Small (5 - 9 in)
  • Color Primary: Black, Sheen or Iridescence
  • Underparts: Glossy black
  • Upperparts: Glossy black
  • Back Pattern: Solid
  • Belly Pattern: Solid
  • Breast Pattern: Solid
  • Bill Shape: All-purpose
  • Eye Color: Red.
  • Head Pattern: Plain, Crested or plumed
  • Crown Color: Glossy black
  • Forehead Color: Glossy black
  • Nape Color: Glossy black
  • Throat Color: Glossy black
  • Cere color: No Data
  • Flight Pattern: Direct flight is high and fluttery.
  • Wingspan Range: 29 cm (11.5 in)
  • Wing Shape: Rounded-Wings
  • Tail Shape: Squared Tail
  • Tail Pattern: Solid
  • Upper Tail: Glossy black
  • Under Tail: Glossy black
  • Leg Color: Black
  • Breeding Location: Desert, Desert, semi, Scrub vegetation areas
  • Breeding Type: Monogamous, Solitary nester, Small colonies
  • Breeding Population: Fairly common to common
  • Egg Color: Gray with brown and black spots and blotches
  • Number of Eggs: 2 - 4
  • Incubation Days: 14
  • Egg Incubator: Both sexes
  • Nest Material: Sticks and plant down bound with spider silk.
  • Migration: Northern birds migrate
  • Condition at Hatching: Helpless with sparse white down, skin grayish black.

Other Names

Similar Species

  • Phénopèple luisant (French)
  • Jilguero negro, Capulinero negro (Spanish)
  • Cedar Waxwing is brownish with a yellow tip on tail.
  • Northern Mockingbird has white wing patches, but also has white in the tail.

Conservation Status

Habitat loss from conversion of desert riparian areas for agricultural use has led to reductions in the number and size of breeding populations. It is not, however, listed as threatened or endangered, and is increasing in some areas.


Sources used to Construct this Page:

Desert, riparian woodlands, and chaparral.
  • Chu, M., and G. Walsberg. 1999. Phainopepla (Phainopepla nitens). In The Birds of North America, No. 415 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
Mistletoe berries, other berries, and flying insects.
Picks berries from mistletoe clusters. Catches insects on the wing, sometimes together with other Phainopeplas. Perches on tops of trees and shrubs.

Adult Sexes Similar

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Additional Photos & Video

Adult Sexes Similar

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All photos © 2008 Rick Swartzentrover - Free for non-profit use.

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