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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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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
8.3 in
21 cm
Weight
0.8–1.5 oz
24–43 g
Relative Size
About the size of a Northern Cardinal; larger than a Black-throated Sparrow.
Other Names
  • Pyrrhuloxia (French)
  • Cardenal torito, cardenal huasteco, cardenal pardo, cardenal desertico (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Foraging winter flocks of Pyrrhuloxias may number as many as 1,000 birds.
  • The name "Pyrrhuloxia" is a combination of the genus names Pyrrhula (bullfinches) and Loxia (crossbills). The roots mean "flame-colored" and "crooked," and aptly describe the reddish bird with the crooked bill.
  • The Pyrrhuloxia has very similar vocalizations and behaviors to the closely related Northern Cardinal, which is found in the same range but tends to live in wetter habitats. When a male Pyrrhuloxia’s and a male cardinal’s territories overlap, each defends its territory vigorously from members of its own species, but they don’t seem to fight with each other.
  • On a day when outdoor temperatures reached 118°F, a Pyrrhuloxia was seen sitting on a terrace in the air-conditioned breeze coming out of a house. This canny behavior has also been observed in Cactus Wrens and Loggerhead Shrikes.
  • Though they will drink at pools of water when possible, Pyrrhuloxias seem to get most of their water from their insect food in spring and summer.
  • The oldest Pyrrhuloxia on record was at least 8 years, 1 month old. It was caught by a bird bander in Arizona and released.

Habitat


Scrub

Pyrrhuloxias live in upland deserts, mesquite savannas, riparian (streamside) woodlands, desert scrublands, farm fields with hedgerows, and residential areas with nearby mesquite. When not breeding, some Pyrrhuloxias wander into urban habitats, mesquite-hackberry habitats, and riparian habitats with Arizona sycamore and cottonwood.

Food


Seeds

The Pyrrhuloxia is an opportunistic and omnivorous bird that forages on the ground and in the shrubbery, eating seeds, fruits, and large insects. It gleans seeds from thistle grass, doveweed, sandbur, panicum, sorghum, pigweed, yellow foxtail, joint grass, crabgrass, wiregrass, and spurge. The fruits in its diet include cactus fruits, nightshade fruits, and elderberries, though it eats much less fruit than the Northern Cardinal does. The Pyrrhuloxia also feeds on blooming saguaro cacti, likely eating the flowers’ nectar and pollen. It catches grasshoppers, caterpillars, beetles, stinkbugs, cicadas, weevils, and cotton cutworms.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–4 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
0.8–1.1 in
2.1–2.8 cm
Egg Width
0.6–0.8 in
1.6–2 cm
Incubation Period
14 days
Nestling Period
10–13 days
Egg Description
Grayish to greenish white, with pale gray or brown markings (very similar to eggs of the Northern Cardinal).
Condition at Hatching
Grayish brown skin with bright yellow bill and bright red mouth-lining.
Nest Description

The female constructs the nest, gathering materials from within the territory, while the male stays in the trees and sings. She builds a neat, compact cup, 3 inches across and 1.5 inches deep, using thorny twigs, strips of bark, and coarse grass. She lines it with rootlets, strips of bark, horsehair, plant fibers, spiderwebs, feathers, and tiny plant stems.

Nest Placement

Shrub

Pyrrhuloxias build nests in dense brush such as mesquite, gray thorn, elderberry, or paloverde. They nest in more open habitats than Northern Cardinals do. The nest itself is placed 5–15 feet off the ground, resting insecurely on small twigs away from the trunk and main branches.

Behavior


Ground Forager

Pyrrhuloxias make short flights by alternating a few wingbeats and a glide, making an undulating flight path. In the fall and winter Pyrrhuloxias forage for seeds in mixed flocks. In late February and early March, the flocks start to break up and the males become aggressive. They establish territories and patrol the boundaries, singing at prominent perches and chasing intruders. Males court females by giving a distinctive call, approaching her with a wing-fluttering sound, bowing the head, and sometimes offering a piece of food. Once nests are in progress, females join their mates to thwart intruders. Pyrrhuloxias remain territorial until the end of the breeding season, in late summer. Mates may stay together year round, but no one knows if they continue their relationship from one year to the next. Predators of Pyrrhuloxias and their nests include feral and domestic cats, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls, and Greater Roadrunners.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Pyrrhuyloxia populations were relatively stable from 1966 to 2010, though small declines were noted every year, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 3 million with 63 percent in Mexico and 37 percent in the U.S.. They are a U.S.-Canada Stewardship Species and rate a 12 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. They are not on the 2012 Watch List. Their numbers likely declined during the twentieth century as millions of acres of desert scrubland in the Southwest were cleared for agriculture and urbanization. Some of the Pyrrhuloxia’s habitat is safeguarded within national wildlife refuges, parks, and other protected areas.

Credits

Range Map Help

Pyrrhuloxia Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident (nonmigratory). Some individuals disperse north after the breeding season.

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.