Welcome back to Percha Dam State Park.
While developing my last nature journal pages about the notoriously fascinating big leaf mistletoe, a perfect segue materialized like magic ….. the natural connection from food to forager, from flora to fauna, from white plump sticky berries called drupes, to shiny black silky flycatchers called Phainopepla (phay-no-pepla).
While camping in the park, we were treated to frequent appearances of several active and vocal phainopeplas. The beautiful glossy black males were putting on quite an aerial show, flashing their bright white wing patches to attract the gray-brown females, Between acts, all the birds we watched ravenously gobbled ripe mistletoe berries from the never-ending supply loading down the riverine cottonwoods.
Here’s what I learned.
After observing and taking a lot of photos of the Phainopeplas flying from cottonwood to cottonwood, many questions crossed my mind. First and foremost ….. what are these gorgeous birds (as we had not yet identified them)! Our trusty bird field guide confirmed the species, and once armed with a positive ID, I began researching answers to questions about range, habitat, breeding, diet, etc. Mostly I wanted to know why any bird in his right mine would spend any time in such a mistletoe infested area! Surely they must be crazy!
So while researching mistletoe, I simultaneously teased out some pretty cool facts about this bird, like …..
Phainopepla diet consists primarily of mistletoe berries, especially in winter. They have a specialized digestive tract to process these sticky fruits and because the berries are nutrient poor, they consume 1,100 berries per day! You’d think eating so many berries would weigh them down and make them sluggish flyers, but each berry consumed only spends 12 minutes in their intestine before the seed exits and gets “deposited” on the bark of a host cottonwood. (Who conducts these experiments?!)
Phainopepla seldom drink, getting most of their water from the mistletoe berries they eat.
Because mistletoe berries are ripe and edible from October into late winter, Phainopepla migrate in the spring to other areas in the desert southwest and Mexico where they set up housekeeping, breed and feast on berries from boxthorn, elderberry, juniper and sumac. Again, these berries are nutrient poor, so they feed their chicks a diet of bugs, beetles, and caterpillars.
By late fall the adults and juveniles are found back noshing on abundant mistletoe berries in places like Percha Dam State Park. From the number of berries consumed daily by each individual bird, it’s easy to see why the mistletoe infestation problem is so severe along the Rio Grande River corridor, and the cottonwoods are becoming infected farther north every year.
But oh the benefits of mistletoe for Phainopepla.