Phainopepla nitens


Ellen McMahon



“Is that the black one?”

“Oh, yeah I love those!”


Many casual birdwatchers confuse the names Phainopepla and Pyrrhuloxia. They don’t confuse the birds, however, and once it’s confirmed that yes, it’s the black one, they know which one you’re talking about and that’s the one they love. Perhaps because they’ve spotted a male perching upright at the top of a solitary mesquite tree glossy black plumage gleaming in the Arizona sun. Maybe they’ve seen him leave his perch in short circular acrobatic flights, catching insects in midair, white wing patches flashing. It’s no wonder the Phainopepela is more popular than the Pyrrhuloxia, the one with the similar name, who just sits around in the undergrowth, a chunky, dusty, desert-y cousin of the Northern Cardinal.


I learned my birds in the Midwest in an Ornithology course with 6:00am field labs. Standing in the snow at double digits below zero, I watched the hearty winter ducks that clustered in the steamy little pools below the power plant. When spring finally arrived, I was dazzled by trees full of sparkling, yellow warblers in migration. Later in the semester, I huddled in a dark makeshift blind in the middle of an empty cornfield, listening to the booming calls of prairie chickens, waiting until dawn and enough light to see them perform their ritualized breeding dance. My love for the avian world propelled me to the Oregon coast for a summer course in pelagic birds. Living at a biological field station on the foggy coast, I raised a great blue heron from an abandoned chick.


Several years later I moved to Arizona as part of a career shift from science to art and never learned the local birds. I saw a Phainopepla and the Pyrrhuloxia once at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Since the names on the ceramic tile sign in the walk-in aviary were so similar to each other, so completely unfamiliar to me, and so hard to pronounce, I promptly forgot which-was-which and the names of both.


Since I didn’t recall ever noticing either bird in the wild in the three decades I’ve lived in Arizona, I turned to my well-worn taxonomically-arranged field guide when I started this essay. There I discovered that though the Phainopepla looks and sometimes feeds like a Flycatcher, it is not even distantly related to the familiar North American Flycatchers. Instead, it’s fifty pages away, pictured beside the lovely and exotic Cedar Waxwings. Phainopepla is the only member of a Central American family that ventures north of the Mexican border. Its relatives, though they live in Spanish-speaking countries, all have accessible common names in English. So why has the Phainopepla been saddled with such a difficult common name?


The technical answer is that in 1957 the American Ornithological Union’s Checklist Committee rejected several names being used regionally and decreed our bird would be commonly known by the first part of its binomial scientific name Phainopepla nitens. Most of the alternatives were unsuitable, like the glossy fly-snapper, but I came across an obscure reference to the common name Windowwing. I wonder how my relationship of the last thirty years with this bird would have been different had I been introduced to it as Windowwing? Would the name’s reference to the white wing patches and genetic relationship to the Cedar Waxwing have helped me notice and remember a Phainopepla as it flitted by me?


As this essay progressed, I began to see many Phainopeplas regularly in the wild—on telephone wires, in scrubby brush and at the tops of trees, sporting their long tails, expressive wispy crests, bright red eyes and glistening plumage. I hear the rising “wurp” of their call and delight when I catch a glimpse of a wing patch. Once I’ve seen the males I often spot little groups of grey females nearby. They were always there, all around me. I just didn’t notice them until I learned their difficult name. Now that I have I think it’s an aptly uncommon name for this anything but common bird.




Ellen McMahon is a Fulbright Scholar and Professor of Art and Visual Communications in the University of Arizona School of Art. Her current student/faculty/community collaborative project Ground |Water is a collection of works in visual art, graphic design, architecture, and creative writing responding to the environmental conditions made evident by the dry riverbeds that surround Tucson, Arizona.