Wuuuu-urp ... wuuu-urp
Looking up in the direction of a new call, I see a graceful dark looking cardinal. No, that can't be a cardinal. Wrong color and too small. I looked in my birding guide to find that it is a female Phainopepla. I had to wrap my brain around how to say the name so I could remember it. I muttered fay-no-PEHP-lah, fay-no-PEHP-lah, fay-no-PEHP-lah for the rest of the day.
The title, thanks for indulging me, comes from the combination of the Greek phain pepla, meaning “shining robe” and the fact that the Phainopepla nitens is one of the four species of silky-flycatchers.
The curious female, a rich slate color rather than a silky black, hung out on the tallest tree branches around my yard for a couple of days. In the meantime I researched the Phainopepla to better understand her interest in the area.
It turns out that Phainopeplas has a special relationship with mistletoe. Reading at the Cornell lab of Ornithology online, I learned that they can eat about 1,100 mistletoe berries per day. As the bird moves to other locations, it drops the unharmed digested seeds along the way. This symbiotic relationship, or mutualism, gives the mistletoe a chance to find a new host and the bird ensures a reliable source of food for future generations.
I checked the cottonwood trees near my house and sure enough they have mistletoe growing in them. As you can see from the photograph above the plant is not producing berries yet. So it appears that the Pyracantha fruit in my yard is looking good to her.
And her companion didn’t take very long to join her.
Some of you may be alarmed that the Phainopeplas are spreading the parasite mistletoe and endangering the local trees. There are ecological benefits that come with this relationship. Mostly, a food source and a nesting place for other birds. I notice that the Yellow-rumped Warbler has been making frequent trips to the mistletoe. I suspect it is hunting for the insects associated with the plant. Here is an example of the relationship between junipers, mistletoe and birds.
A study of mistletoe in junipers concluded that more juniper berries sprout in stands where mistletoe is present, as the mistletoe attracts berry-eating birds which also eat juniper berries. Such interactions lead to dramatic influences on diversity, as areas with greater mistletoe densities support higher diversities of animals. Thus, rather than being a pest, mistletoe can have a positive effect on biodiversity, providing high quality food and habitat for a broad range of animals in forests and woodlands worldwide.
I wish I could give you the identity of the mistletoe shown above. Because it is living on the cottonwood trees, it might be the Phoradendron macrophyllum. The Mesquite Mistletoe Phoradendron californicum is known to be one of the most important food sources for the Phainopeplas. I find it interesting that the Phainopepla rarely drinks water because the mistletoe berries provides most of the water that the bird requires. A pretty handy adaption for living in the desert.
The Daily Bucket is a place to share or ask questions about your observations in the natural world. I invite you to use the comment section to do that. It is helpful if you can include in your comment a hint about your location so that the readers can put your observation into context. What makes this fun is that you never know what subject will drop into the bucket. Note: a splash of humor is not unusual either.
Saturday at 1:00 pm Pacific Time on the Daily Kos front page.