Bird of the Week: Pyrrhuloxia

Adult female Pyrrhuloxia. Courtesy of Mike Charest.

Pyrrhuloxia (Cardinalis sinuatus)

Often called the Desert Cardinal, the Pyrrhuloxia is gray or brown with flashes of red that vary in amount. Both sexes have a yellowish bill and red highlights in their wings. They are about the same size as a Northern Cardinal but are clearly different, as seen in the photograph captured by Jeff Clow. Even when compared to the duller colors of a female Cardinal, the differences are easily noted. While they are frequently seen with their cousins, the Cardinal, Pyrrhuloxia have a narrower range and are restricted to the southern part of Texas and the desert Southwest, as well as northern Mexico. If the desert gets really hot (118 degrees), they will find a breeze on terraces and other overhangs.

Adult male Northern Cardinal and adult male Pyrrhuloxia. Courtesy of Jeff Clow, Jeff Clow Photo Tours.

Feeding primarily on seeds at or near the ground, Pyrrhuloxia will also dine on available insects. Flights are short and they undulate as they move between areas of coverage. They can often be seen on cacti and mesquite trees. Their song is sharp and cardinal-like, making chipping notes. Unseen, their sound can be mistaken for that of a Cardinal. Pyrrhuloxias do not fight with their cousins and outside of breeding season may join in flocks of up to 1,000 birds to forage for food. Although most of their water comes from bugs, they will go to pools of water to drink and bathe.

Nesting occurs in May, June, and July. Nests are built almost entirely by the female and consist of twigs, weeds, bark strips, lined with fine grass and fibers. The nest is placed 4-15′ above the ground, usually in a thorny shrub or a low tree. The female lays 3-4 eggs, which are pale grayish white to greenish white with brown and gray spots. Incubation is about 14 days and is the job of the female. The male may feed the female during this time. Both parents bring food to the nestlings, which will fly about 10 days after hatching. Pyrrhuloxia do not migrate but will defend their territory during breeding season.

Its odd name, which is a bit difficult to pronounce (peer-uh-LOX-ee-a), combines the Latin term for the Bullfinch with a Greek reference to the bird’s bill shape. Their relationship to Cardinals is found in their scientific name, Cardinalis sinuatus. Although the population is decreasing due to climate change and habitat loss, Pyrrhuloxia are still easy to find in their desert home. The Texas Breeding Bird Atlas has even confirmed sightings as far north as just below the Texas Panhandle.


Compiled by Jeanette Larson.

Sources include The Cornell Lab: All About Birds and Audubon Guide to North American Birds.