Phainopepla nitens

Enrique Lamadrid


Primeros encuentros, Capulineros

    First encounters, Phainopeplas

            Sierra del Olvido


    Fall harvest, septiembre:

Mantle of thin desert fog below

granite spires filter dawn light above

fallen rocks, hidden canyon, no trail.

Impenetrable granjeno hackberry,

tangled with wild grape vines.

Upslope - wolfberry, sumac, soapberry,

clusters of muérdago mistletoe

in every mountain mahogany.


Networked chorus of sharp single cries,

metallic baroque refrains in alternation.

Noisy hidden thicket banquet,

systematic berry gorge amidst

muffled chuckles of codorniz,

           no quail,

mimic chortles of verdín,

           no verdin,

single churp of carpintero escapulario,

           no flicker,

All this ruckus, only phainopeplas,

and mimic phantom friends

carefully chosen, not random

like cenzontle, brother mockingbird.


Perched in topmost branches

of the tallest mesquite around,

captain of the capulín,

a single male, keeps lookout.

Crazy disheveled crest, eyes

bright red as desert cherries,

shining black silk feathers

combing the desert wind.


Gavilán catches thermals overhead,

the sentinel's singular shriek

mobilizes mockingbird,

toquí the towhee, even tiny colibrí

the hummingbird musters forth.

The defense squadron takes wing,

phainopepla flashes white

wing patches leading areal charge,

relentlessly mobbing the hawk

to next canyon, out of danger.


   Spring hunt, marzo:

Flocks split into family bands,

disperse across desert valleys,

following the renaissance

of hatching flies flitting

between tornillo mesquites

and gobernadora creosote,

from cottonwood bosques that

shade the Río Grande's banks

to rocky horizons beyond.


Newly territorial male guards

against intruders of his kind,

distracted by the buzzing,

he spirals out acrobatic

catching flies right and left,

true to his other vocation.


Verdugo, the executioner,

uncle shrike, raptor songbird

springs silent from cholla,

grabs phainopepla unaware.

Piercing shrieks attracts no help,

so he mimics a flock of doves

taking sudden flight to no effect,

then mimics aguililla cola roja,

red tail hawk? Shrike looks up

distracted but half a second

then returns to his deadly task,

impales his prey on cactus spines.


Red-eyed grey females look on

horrified, half hidden in their nests,

hunkering down determined

guarding the next generations.






note: All details from field observation, except the death scene. Phainopeplas can mimic up to nineteen other species, many of which answer their calls. Instead of blurting them out like mockingbirds, they seemingly select and direct them for their own purposes and needs. Besides the five species in the poem, they also mimic ravens, jays, finches, woodpeckers, and kestrels (Chu 2001). Shrikes will take an occasional phainopepla, even though they are comparable in size. They stash their prey in cactus or tree nooks for storage. Only one ornithologist has observed a phainopepla kill in the field (Weathers 1983). These desert birds are so singular and charismatic, that I have no doubt they must figure in the lore and mythologies of the desert tribes of northern Mexico and the borderlands. Keep your ears open and share stories -


Glosario - Glossary

Primeros encuentros - first encounters


Sierra del Olvido - Oblivion Mountains, one of the earliest names of the Organ Mountains on Spanish colonial maps


septiembre, marzo - September, March


Phainopepla nitens (Greek for shining robe), Silky Flycatcher (but not from the flycatcher family), Capulinero (Lord of the Chokecherries, northern Mexico)


Flora: Capulín - chokecherry (up to three or four species of prunus) or generic for any bush berry fruit. Granjeno - hackberry. Muérdago - desert mistletoe. Mesquite - mesquite. Tornillo - screw, as in screwbean mesquite. Gobernadora (hediondilla in Sonora) - creosote bush. Bosque - forest, in this case, of cottonwoods. Cholla - cholla.


Birds: Cordorniz - quail. Verdín (also moscón baloncito) - verdin. Carpintero escapulario (carpinter with a scapulary) - flicker. Cenzontle - mockingbird. Gavilán - sparrow hawk, Coopers, Sharpshinned, and others. Toquí - towhee. Colibrí (also chuparrosa) - hummingbird. Verdugo (also alcaudón) - shrike. Aguililla cola roja - red tail hawk.




Enrique Lamadrid is a borderlands literary and bio-regional folklorist from Albuquerque and the Río Arriba, fascinated with natural histories in Nuevomexicano and Mexicano oral tradition, ethno-ornithology, and ethno-taxonomies.