With 10,000 species of birds in the world, it’s difficult to pick favorites, but I can’t resist a family with the name ‘Silky-flycatchers.’ Actually, the scientific name for this small family is Ptilogonatidae, but ‘Silky-flycatchers’ is easier to pronounce. There are only four species worldwide in the family, and they are all found in the Western Hemisphere. Two are limited to Costa Rica and Panama, the Black-and-yellow Silky-flycatcher and the Long-tailed Silky-flycatcher.
One of the other two, the Gray Silky, is predominately a Mexican resident, slipping into western Guatemala occasionally. Gray Silkies are strikingly colorful, with a gray crest, pale eye ring, long slender tail with black-bordered white feathers underneath and bright yellow ventral feathers. To find this bird, however, you need to travel to southern Sonora, the northernmost part of its range where it can be found in montane forest habitat. We once discovered a flock of them perched and singing in the mountains east of Mazatlàn, on the highway to Durango.
Fortunately for us, the fourth Silky-flycatcher makes its home in Arizona and the southwest as well as Mexico. This is the Phainopepla, our familiar shiny black bird with a red eye and crest. The Phainopepla’s scientific name reflects the family’s silky connection. Phainopepla nitens is a combination of Greek and Latin, with Phainopepla from Greek for ‘shining robe’ and nitens from Latin for ‘shining.’ This redundant combination, ‘Shining shining robe’ insures you won’t forget this silky bird truly shines. Like the other three silky flycatchers, Phainopeplas naturally catch flies, hawking insects from the highest perch they can find. Also like the other three Silky-flycatchers, Phainopeplas eat mistletoe berries, and are so fond of them they build their nests in mistletoe host trees and aggressively defend their trees from interlopers. Silky-flycatchers have a symbiotic relationship with mistletoe. The birds eat the berries and then poop the seeds in a sticky matrix onto tree limbs where they germinate and grow the next round of mistletoe. Desert mistletoe, incidentally, does not harm, let alone kill healthy trees, but its removal by well-meaning landscapers or gardeners is clearly not in the best interests of Phainopeplas, who can eat more than a thousand mistletoe berries each in a single day. The berries also are the bird’s primary source of water.
Phainopeplas don’t really migrate, but as summer heat builds and mistletoe berries disappear they will disperse from warmer lower elevation sites to cooler higher areas. Interestingly, they breed in both areas, February through April in the lower elevations and May through July in the higher ones. You can often hear Phainopeplas before you see them, as they make repetitive ‘hooweet’ calls from their high perch. Less obvious and little known is the fact they can imitate twelve other birds, including Red-tailed Hawks and Northern Flickers. If you like to photograph birds, Phainopeplas likely will be one of your favorites. They aren’t shy, perch in clear sight and call attention to themselves. A photographer’s dream.
The above article was originally published in the Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, December, 2015.