Desert mistletoe has no leaves, but it does have chlorophyll in its stems, and so photosynthesizes. However like most parasites, it takes its water and nutrients from host plants, generally native trees such as mesquites and palo verdes. Mistletoe generally does not harm the host plant unless it is stressed, or unless the infestation becomes extreme. Female plants produce small red berries that are the major food source for phainopeplas in the winter. An individual bird can eat a prodigious number of berries.
The two species have a mutually dependent relationship, with the plant providing food, and the bird reciprocating with favors of propagation. After gorging on berries, the phainopepla flies to a distant tree where it hangs out for awhile, preening and cleaning the sticky berry residue, including seeds, from its beak by wiping it on the rough branches. Often the bird deposits droppings on the branch as well, including mistletoe seeds that have passed through its digestion system in a viable form. Every so often seeds deposited by either method stick in a crevice of the bark and begin to germinate. In this way the phainopepla “plants” new mistletoe seeds for a later crop of berries.
When there are no berries available the phainopepla eats other fruits and will nab insects from the air. Another name for the bird is silky-flycatcher. If the male phainopepla is a rock star, the female is his glamorous groupie. As opposed to his shiny black plumage, she wears dusky grey. Her black wing feathers are edged in white, like fine lace. Both males and females have square patchs of white on their wings that flash boldly in flight.
Phainopepla is a songbird with a large repertoire which you can sample at Allaboutbirds. When threatened by a predator the phainopepla will run through imitations of other birds, mimicking a dozen different calls. Want to say it out loud? fay-no-pep-la