The Silky-Flycatchers are a small family of delicate, long-tailed, thrush-sized birds that inhabit woodlands from the southwestern United States south to the mountains of western Panama. They are thus, essentially, a Middle American family. Three of the four species are crested, including the northernmost representative, Phainopepla (male; left). Their plumage ranges from silky black to gray to yellow (depending on the species) but always with a lovely sleek sheen to it. All the species fly-catch for insects mostly taken in the air but some are also heavily dependent on berries. Phainopepla, for example, is strongly associated with mistletoe berries in the oak woodlands of central California. Yet in southern California and Arizona it is a desert species in lightly-wooded riparian washes.
There are 3 genera among the 4 species. Only the Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher (left; © Maryann Danielson) of the mountains of Costa Rica to w. Panama, and the Gray Silky-Flycatcher (right) of oak-pine and juniper woods in Mexico & Guatemala are assigned to the same genus (Ptilogonys).
Phainopepla is in its own same-named genus, while Black-and-yellow Silky-Flycatcher Phainoptila melanoxantha, of cloud forests in Costa Rica and Panama, rounds out the third genus.
We generally think of silky-flycatchers as resident species, but there can be substantial movements. Vagrants occur from time to time, including this young Phainopepla (right) in my home town of Pacific Grove, Monterey County, California, in fall 2001. An immature Phainopepla resembles female plumage; all silky-flycatchers have sexual dimorphism but most strikingly in this species. Because the movements of this group are not well understood, the occurrence of a Gray Silky-Flycatcher (below) in coastal southern California can be very controversial.
Although this one was in good montane habitat, and apparently well away from presumed sources of captivity, the California rarities committee eventually decided they couldn't decide, and placed the record in a "supplemental list" limbo.

In southern California, some Phainopepla populations move between deserts where they nest early in the season to the mountains or coastal woods where they renest later in the season (Walsberg 1977. This is a fascinating scenario that needs further study; does something similar happen in the nomadic populations of coastal central California? This family also cares for its young quite a long time. In some species the downy young remain in the nest for 18-25 days, a surprisingly long time for a open-nesting passerine bird.

Although the silky-flycatchers are a distinctive group, DNA hybridization evidence (e.g., in Sibley & Ahlquist 1990) indicates that they are most closely related to waxwings.  Indeed, Sibley & Monroe (1990), Sibley (1996), and Clements (1991) all lump them together in one family with the waxwings, and the expanded group takes the waxwing family name [Bombycillidae]. But the AOU (1998) and the Handbook of the Birds of the World project retain the separate family classification for these lovely birds.

As a personal aside, I recall my first Phainopepla well because it was such a striking bird. It was my first trip to Morongo Valley in March 1972. Just as I saw a male Phainopepla, a biologist working for Charles Sibley appeared from out of the bushes with a small Phainopepla egg! He was collecting eggs for an egg-white protein analysis project to help figure out the relationship of this enigmatic bird. Sibley worked with egg-white proteins before moving to the DNA-DNA hybridization technique.

And as a final aside, the name "Phainopepla" comes from the Greek, and means "shining robe." As it is a Greek name, some contend that all vowels must be pronounced. Thus the name should be said "Fay-eye-no-pep-la." Ever since I heard that theory back in the 1970s, I've called this bird "Fay-eye-no-pep-la" but no one else that I know does so. For the rest of the world, I guess, its just "Fain-o-pep-la." But try it "my" way. It has a nice ring to it.

Photos: The male Phainopepla Phainopepla nitens was photographed at Chalone Vineyards near Pinnacles Nat'l Monument, Monterey Co., California, on 10 Jan 2004; the vagrant youngster in Pacific Grove, Monterey Co., was on 23 Sep 2001. Maryann Danielson photographed the Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher Ptilogonys caudatus at Boquette, Chiriqui, Panama, on 24 Jan 1981 [my own shot at the same time & place is not nearly as good; thanks, Mary Ann]. The first Gray Silky-Flycatcher Ptilogonys cinereus was in it expected range among pine-oak woodlands above Paval, Chiapas, Mexico, in April 1986; the second was well out-of-range in the Cleveland Nat'l Forest, Orange Co., California, on 13 Feb 1999.All photos © 2004 Don Roberson, except that attributed to © Mary Ann Danielson and used with permission; all rights reserved.

Literature cited:

American Ornithologists' Union. 1998. Check-List of North American Birds. 7th ed. A.O.U., Washington, D. C.

Clements, J. 1991. Birds of the Word: a Checklist. 4th ed. Ibis Publ., Vista, CA.

Sibley, C.G. 1996. Birds of the World, on diskette, Windows version 2.0. Charles G. Sibley, Santa Rosa, CA.

Sibley, C.G., and J.E. Ahlquist. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds: A Study in Molecular Evolution. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.

Sibley, C.G., and B.L. Monroe. 1990. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.

Walsberg, G.E. 1977. Ecology and energetics of contrasting social systems in Phainopepla nitens (Aves: Ptilogonatidae). Univ. Calif. Publ. Zool. 108: 1-63.



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