I’m often asked to pick my favorite bird, but I gave that challenge up years ago. I might try the top ten or twenty, but even that’s hard when you’re choosing those you’ve seen from a worldwide list of more than 10,000 species. Bird families are a little easier, and when you narrow the pool down to local birds, things take on a clearer focus, though it’s still far from easy. In Arizona, one of my favorite bird families is a very small group of just four species, only one of which is seen in Arizona. The family name is the descriptive ‘Silky Flycatchers’, and the scientific name for this small family is Ptilogonatidae, which, in addition to being close to unpronounceable, is not a valid Scrabble word. ‘Silky-flycatchers’ is easier to remember and a lot 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, though it slips 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’ ensures you won’t forget that this silky bird truly shines. Like the other three silky flycatchers, Phainopeplas naturally catch flies, hawking insects from the highest perch they can find. All four species of Silky-flycatchers, including the Phainopepla, have a symbiotic relationship with mistletoe. The birds eat mistletoe berries, and then poop the seeds in a sticky matrix onto the host tree limbs, where they germinate and grow the next round of mistletoe.
Silky-flycatchers are so fond of mistletoe that they build their nests in host trees and aggressively defend these trees from interlopers. 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. Mistletoe berries are also the bird’s primary source of water. The male Phainopepla is a striking silky black, with a tall crest, white wing patches and a gleaming red eye. The female is nearly as striking, with the same features, except her coat is silky gray rather than black.
Phainopeplas don’t really migrate, but as summer heat builds and mistletoe berries disappear, the birds 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.