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Pyrrhuloxia

Cardinalis sinuatus ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: CARDINALIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Dapper in looks and cheerful in song, the Pyrrhuloxia is a tough-as-nails songbird of baking hot deserts in the American Southwest and northern Mexico. They’re closely related to Northern Cardinals, but they are a crisp gray and red, with a longer, elegant crest and a stubby, parrotlike yellow bill. During breeding season Pyrrhuloxias are fiercely and vocally territorial, but in the winter they forget their disputes and join together in large foraging flocks.

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Keys to identification Help

Finches
Finches
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Pyrrhuloxias are stocky, medium-sized songbirds with tall crests and long tails. They have heavy but short seed-cracking bills with a curved culmen, or upper edge.

  • Color Pattern

    Overall, Pyrrhuloxias are gray or gray-brown birds with prominent flashes of red. Males are crisp gray with a red face and crest, a red stripe running down the breast, and a reddish tail. Females are buffy gray, with less red than males. Both sexes have yellowish bills and reddish highlights in the wings.

  • Behavior

    Pyrrhuloxias feed primarily on seeds on or near the ground, but will also eat insects when they are available. They make short, undulating flights when moving between patches of cover. Males frequently sing their ringing, staccato melodies from exposed perches such as cacti; both males and females give sharp, cardinal-like chip notes.

  • Habitat

    Sedentary residents of desert regions, Pyrrhuloxias favor scrub, dry grasslands, open mesquite forest, and cactus gardens for nesting. In the winter, they may move short distances into more lush areas near water.

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Similar Species

Similar Species

The closely related Northern Cardinal has a triangular, straight-edged, orange-red bill instead of the Pyrrhuloxia’s curved, stubby, yellowish bill. Additionally, female cardinals have gray-black faces and are a warmer, buff-brown color overall instead of the colder gray of the Pyrrhuloxia. While these species do widely overlap in the Southwest, Northern Cardinals usually prefer wetter areas with denser vegetation. Pyrrhuloxias do not regularly occur outside of the desert Southwest and northern Mexico.

Backyard Tips

Pyrrhuloxias come to backyards for seeds, particularly sunflower; it’s more likely to feed from ground feeders or from scattered or discarded seeds than visit elevated feeders. They may also feed from native, fruit-bearing shrubs or cacti.

Find This Bird

Pyrrhuloxias are habitat specialists, so look for them in desert scrub of the Southwest, where they look (and sound) like crisp, gray-and-red cardinals. The short, curved, yellow bill and long crest are good points to distinguish it from the Northern Cardinal, which can also occur in the desert.