Breeding males are a mix of purples and reds. They’re deep crimson above and below, with violet-blue face, rump, and shoulders, a crimson eyering and hindcrown, and black around bill. Nonbreeding adult males are dark brownish above and below. Females and first-year males are mousy brown above, grayish buff below, lacking streaking or wingbars.
Forages by moving through brushy vegetation, twitching tail and wings, hunting for insects and sometimes cactus fruit or seeds. Often forages in pairs. Males sing from perches (sometimes concealed) in spring and early summer.
Nests in thorn forest in canyons, stream corridors, desert washes, and surrounding areas, from near sea level to 4,000 feet elevation.
Ornithologists recognize four very similar subspecies, two of which reach into the United States as breeders: the pale-billed versicolor, which nests from Texas into eastern New Mexico, and the darker-billed dickeyae, which nests in southeastern Arizona and western New Mexico. Adult dickeyae males have a more distinct red hindcrown patch and darker underparts than in versicolor. Subspeciespulchra is resident on the southern Baja California peninsula, and the smaller, darker purpurascens has been described as resident from Chiapas, Mexico, into Guatemala.