Top 10 Facts About The Pyrrhuloxia (Desert Cardinal)


The pyrrhuloxia is an interesting bird that is often mistaken as a discolored northern cardinal. This gray and red highlighted-feathered bird has a wispy head crest and parrot-like bill.

While they live in the desert, they may appreciate a cool breeze on a hot day.

Read on to learn more about the top 10 fascinating facts about pyrrhuloxia, which includes how to properly say their name.

1. Pyrrhuloxia Are Mistaken As Discolored Northern Cardinals

The pyrrhuloxia (Cardinalis sinuatus) is related to the northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). It has an overall physical appearance that makes it look like a discolored northern cardinal.

This songbird is gray and red. Males have a long elegant, wispy red crest, and red highlights on their underbellies, wings, tails, and red masks around their bill. 

Its yellow beak is slightly differently-shaped than a northern cardinal’s, with a shape more like that of a parrot’s.  

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Females are similar, but without the red on their bellies or masks around their bills.

Pyrrhuloxias are found in the hot deserts of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. Conversely, the northern cardinal is found primarily east of the Rocky Mountains.

However, it is possible to see both in desert habitats.

2. Its Name Is Difficult To Pronounce

The way to say this bird’s name is [pir-uh-lok-see-uh]. However, many people commonly refer to it as the desert cardinal.

The name pyrrhuloxia combines two scientific genus names: Pyrrhula (bullfinches) and Loxia (crossbill finches). The roots of this name go back to Greek references to the bird’s bill shape and “flame-colored” feathers.

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3. Desert Cardinals Appreciate A Cool Breeze

If temperatures get extreme, a pyrrhuloxia might enjoy a cool breeze. 

One was observed enjoying the air-conditioned breeze from a terrace on a 118°F day. Other birds do this as well, such as the cactus wren and loggerhead shrike.

Pyrrhuloxias are most often found in habitats in the Southwest desert, thorn scrubs, arid canyons, and mesquite scrub and groves. They tolerate dry and open habitats.

Check out this video to get a closer look at a pyrrhuloxia perched in a thorny shrub on a breezy day:

4. They Don’t Fight With Their Northern Cardinal Relatives

In areas where the pyrrhuloxia and northern cardinals overlap territories, they do not fight with each other. Each member of each species only fights its own species. 

Pyrrhuloxias fight by chasing after territorial intruders. Males also stand at territorial boundaries and sing.

5. Pyrrhuloxia Are Seasonally Fierce & Vocal

Pyrrhuloxias are particularly fierce and vocal with each other during the breeding seasons.

However, when it is winter they join together in large flocks to forage.

6. They Forage In Winter Flocks

When it is not breeding season, pyrrhuloxias have been found to forage together in the wintertime. These flocks can number as many as 1,000 members. 

They forage on the ground, in shrubs, and low in trees for foods such as insects and berries.

7. Desert Cardinals Have A Varied Diet

Pyrrhuloxias are omnivores, eating primarily insects, seeds, and berries.  

They particularly like sunflower seeds and will feed from platform backyard feeders or seeds fallen to the ground. They also eat the seeds of weeds, grasses, and mesquite.

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They consume insects such as caterpillars, grasshoppers, beetles, and other arthropods. They’ll help cotton plant crops thrive by eating cotton worms and weevils from them. 

They eat from habitat-native plants such as fruit-bearing shrubs and cacti.

The majority of their hydration (water) comes from insect consumption, but they may drink from pooling water, as well as bathe in it. 

8. They Make A Variety Of Songs & Calls

The whistled songs of the pyrrhuloxia are quite similar to a northern cardinal’s song. An example is their “what-cheer” performed with a softer and reedier tone.

Males produce about 12 songs, 2 to 3 seconds in length, to create and maintain territories. A neighboring male may sing in unison or alternate with another over boundary lines. Females only occasionally sing when defending nests.

This bird’s call sounds like a sharp, metallic “chip”, “cheek”, or “tink” thinner in pitch and shorter than the cardinal’s call. Calls are often produced when flying and foraging.

9. They Only Pair-Bond During Breeding Season 

Pyrrhuloxias pair up and bond seasonally during the breeding season.

After the season is over, they abandon the territory to join flocks in foraging during the winter.

10. The Male Feeds The Female (Courtship & Incubation)

A male initiates bonding for breeding. To court a female, a male will bring food to her.  

The female builds a nest on their now shared territory. The nest is created 4 to 15 feet above the ground in a low tree or thorny shrub.

This cup-shaped nest is often made of thorny pieces, bark, and weeds and lined with rootlets, grass, and plant fibers.

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After mating, the female lays 2 to 5 eggs. These eggs are pale gray or greenish-white with spots of brown and gray. The female is the only one to incubate the eggs, but the male continues to feed her.

Once the nestlings are born, both parents feed them. Their offspring leaves the nest about 10 days later.


Pyrrhuloxias are fascinating birds with physical features and songs that are similar to that of a northern cardinal. However, their gray and red coloring, parrot-shaped bill, and desert habitat make them different from this relative.

This bird courts a female by bringing her food, and continues to do so while she incubates their eggs. They may also enjoy a cool breeze on a hot day.

These facts and more make pyrrhuloxia a fun bird to see and know more about.

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James Goodman

James is a native Texan with a love for birding and outdoor adventures. When he's not birdwatching, you can find him hiking, camping or playing the piano.

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