The first time I saw a phainopepla, I was with an Audubon outing in the Coachella Valley, outside of Palm Springs. Since then, I always considered the species to be a desert habitat bird; that is, until I discovered them here in YLP.
You probably will hear a phainopepla before you see one, if you see it all. This resplendent feathered friend makes a melodic, rising “wurp” vocalization. When I hear that call, I look up high into the tree tops. I will often see this distinctive looking bird perched on a branch in the open, surveying its surroundings.
The name “phainopepla” derives from the Greek meaning “shining robe.” And shiny he is, the male of the species, with glossy black feathers and translucent white wing patches seen in flight. In contrast, the female and juvenile are a dull, mouse gray. They all have mesmerizing, crimson red eyes with solid black pupils, and a striking crest that resembles the hairdo of a punk rocker.
While the phainopepla regularly eats insects, its main source of nutrition is berries, primarily that of mistletoe. In the course of a day, a single bird may eat several hundred, which it swallows whole. A specialized digestive system can handle it all.
The phainopepla mimics the calls of other birds, which makes positive identification more difficult without visual confirmation. I wasn’t surprised to learn that it imitates desert habitat birds such as the verdin and Gambel’s quail, since the desert is where I first knew them to reside.
Some of the other birds it imitates include: the red-tailed hawk, scrub jay, acorn woodpecker, and northern flicker. These are all birds we find here in our oak woodland habitat. Hmm! Fascinating.
Given the call mimicry, researchers suspected that some phainopeplas actually migrate between habitats. Phainopeplas tagged during the winter in the Mohave Desert of Arizona were discovered in the California coastal oak-sycamore woodlands the following summer. Blood tests revealed that the two populations (desert and California coastal) are genetically the same.
Given similar DNA and the proven migration, the evidence would suggest that the phainopepla is an itinerant breeder, meaning some breed in two different habitats, if not twice in the same year. More research will tell.
While I usually only see this species perched high in the treetops, I happened upon one individual while walking around Blue Heron Lake. As I passed by a pocket of pokeweed shrubs full of ripe berries, I heard the call: “wurp.” There he was, flying back and forth from oak branch to pokeweed, “wurp, wurp,” at eye level, hanging on like an acrobat, picking fruit and swallowing it whole, “wurp, wurp, wurp.” Two days later, all the berries were gone, and so was the phainopepla.
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Robert Groos is a published photographer and keen observer of nature who lives in Yosemite Lakes Park. He shares some of his outstanding images of our local feathered friends along with some tidbits of interesting facts about each. We hope you enjoy them as much as we do.