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12.12: Phainopepla nitens: Black Cardinal

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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Common Name

  • Black Cardinal
  • Phainopepla


The height for the black cardinal is 16 centimeters and the length is 20 centimeters. The male has a shiny black chest and has two white wing patches with a long tail and red eyes. The female has brown eyes and white wing patches. They travel in small flocks. The young phainopepla has rounded wings as well as long tails.

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Aves
  • Order: Passeriformes
  • Family: Plethodontidae
  • Genus: Phainopepla
  • Species: Phainopepla nitens


The black cardinal is native to San Diego, California as well as southwestern Colorado, Nevada, southwestern Utah, New Mexico, and the Sonoran Desert. The black cardinal is rarely found in Arizona, Texas and Mexico. It can be found in woodlands, desert scrub, and canyon foothills.


Cell Biology

Phainopepla nitens has cells called eukaryotic cells. Eukaryotic cells are cells with a nucleus, which contains genetic material, as well as many other organelles. Organelles are tiny cell parts within the cell. Some examples of organelles are ribosomes, which are non-membrane bound organelles where proteins are made. Another example is vesicles, and they are small, membrane-bound sacs that transport materials around the cell and to the cell membrane. A final example is mitochondria, which basically provides energy needed to power chemical reactions. The Phainopepla has specialized cells called red blood cells which transport oxygen through the entire body.

The Phainopepla have cells that divide into two ways, and those two ways are called mitosis and meiosis. There is a difference between the two. In mitosis, the cell divides the nucleus, and each new cell contains a copy of the DNA in the original cell. Meiosis on the other hand has the cell divide to produce gametes(ex: eggs, sperm) with one half the chromosomes (containing DNA) of the parent cell.


All birds overall evolved from dinosaurs. Birds probably evolved from dinosaurs called theropods, which lived about 150 million years ago. The ancestor of birds was probably similar to a theropod called Deinonychus. Fossils of Deinonychus were first identified in the 1960s. This was an extremely important find because it convinced most scientists that birds had descended from dinosaurs.


Black cardinals pick berries from mistletoe clusters and eat about 1,100 berries a day. They catch insects in the air by their wings to prevent their food from escaping the beak. They can also can try to catch their food by two of them working together. The black cardinal, like many birds, lives on trees.

The black cardinal is found in desert ecosystems. The black cardinals are primarily found in washes which are in Pacific Southwest areas. Those areas are riparian areas and other areas that support arid scrubs. They are found in coastal areas such as San Diego and prefer to live in oak chaparral and also riparian oak woodlands, which have rivers or streams.

The black cardinal has a unique relationship with its main food source, mistletoe berries. Mistletoe berries are dependent on the bird to plant them on the branch of a tree. It does this by eating the berry, yet not harming the seeds. The bird's droppings, which contain the seeds, will hit a branch, and then the seed will start to germinate. When there is an abundance of mistletoe berries, black cardinals will gather in the hundreds; otherwise, they are hard to find.

Anatomy and Physiology

This bird has a four-chambered heart and has two respiration cycles as well. Its digestive system includes a crop for storing food and feeding babies, and a gizzard for grinding food. It has hollow bones and feathers made of keratin.


Phainopepla do not have a long migration, and some do not migrate at all. They travel in small flocks. They build their nests 4-50 feet off the ground.


  • Book of North American birds. Pleasantville, N.Y.: Reader's Digest Association, 1990. Print.
  • Bull, John L., and John Farrand. The National Audubon Society field guide to North American birds. Rev. ed., 2nd ed. New York: Knopf :, 1994. Print.
  • Dunn, Jon L.. National Geographic field guide to the birds of North America. 6th ed. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2011. Print.
  • http://www.allaboutbirds.com
  • http://www.birding.about.com
  • http://www.eol.org
  • http://www.pbs.org
  • http://www.naturebytesvideo.com
  • Sibley, David. The Sibley field guide to birds of western North America. New York: Knopf, 2003. Print.



  • Robert Correa
  • Victoria Nguyen
  • Hilary Castaneda

Supervising Faculty

  • Amy Huff Shah


  • Museum School, San Diego, California


  • Published prior to review.

Edit History

  • Created: April 5, 2013
  • Version 1.0 submitted to CK-12: July 11, 2013
  • CK-12 edits: in progress


  • Middle School (grades 6-8)

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Jul 18, 2013
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