John Mayer, a friend from Southern California, was one of my hiking buddies in the Baranca Del Cobre in Mexico. It was on our trip to the famed Copper Canyon that we first spotted this wayward Cardinal of the South. Called the Pyrrhuloxia, the name is a combination of several expressions (pyrrhula and Loxia), which point to it’s old Cardinal scientific names. The bird is nearly as striking as the Cardinal with its distinctive orange beak, red face markings and gray crest, yet it is not as flashy and flamboyant. The bird is a beautiful flier and this species is very fun to watch in flight and to listen to while calling.
This Cardinal of the Desert is known for its bright colors and beautiful voice. They are closely related to the Northern Cardinal but are normally only found in the American southwest: New Mexico, Arizona and Texas.
Fun Facts of the Pyrrhuloxia
The Pyrrhuloxia’s name comes from Greek terms describing its color and the shape of its bill. They were first described in 1838 by Charles Lucien Bonaparte, French Naturalist and ornithologist, and nephew of Emperor Napoleon.
The Pyrrhuloxia male has a red-tipped gray crest, gray head, back and upperparts, red washed face and breast and pale gray underparts. The tail is red and the underside of the wings is usually red.
The female is duller with less red. While the Desert Cardinal resembles the Northern Cardinal, the Desert Cardinal has a yellow bill and the Northern Cardinal has a red bill and is redder overall. Where both the Pyrrhuloxia and Northern Cardinal breed, territories of the two species may overlap, and no conflicts have been recorded between the species.
They prefer desert brush, especially along arroyos and may also be found in town. These birds like to eat black oil sunflower seeds, peanuts, no-melt dough, fruits, berries and insects.
The favored feeding position of Pyrrhuloxia is on a flat area, such as a hopper feeder, tray or on the ground. They will cling to a feeder to get some of their favorite foods, peanuts or Bark Butter Bits. They are also attracted to mealworms. Pyrrhuloxias will visit feeders at any time of day, but are typically the most numerous at dusk or dawn and are often the first and last birds at the feeders.
They are more likely to be seen in the winter than in the summer while they are nesting. Flocks of Pyrrhuloxias in the winter are common.
Desert Cardinals are monogamous and a solitary nester. They lay 3-4 eggs in a nest made of thorny twigs, weeds, grass and bark pieces, lined with rootlets and fine materials. Eggs are incubated by the female for 14 days. The male feeds the female during incubation.
Pyrrhuloxia combines words meaning “fire” and “crosswise,” the latter referring to the bird’s beak.
Female Pyrrhuloxias rarely sing, whereas Northern Cardinal mates often sing duets together.
Startled Pyrrhuloxias rely on nearby cover as they are not strong flyers, which they reach with an undulating flap-and-glide flight.