Feathered Friends – Pyrrhuloxia

Pyrrhuloxia by Mick Thompson Flickr CC

Pyrrhuloxia by Mick Thompson

This story originally appeared in the Jan-March 2014 issue of the Vermilion Flycatcher, the quarterly magazine of Tucson Audubon.

This amazing desert-adapted bird can be a source of confusion for beginning birders. The male of this species is often mistaken for a female cardinal— and quite understandably, as they are very closely related. Once you know what to look for on this species, they are quite distinctive and a treat to encounter in their favorite habitat, desert washes. The name, almost as challenging to speak as to spell, is pronounced: “pyro-locks-e-uh” and in Greek refers to its flame-colored plumage and its “crooked” beak. These two features are actually its most distinctive so perhaps its name is appropriate. Male Pyrrhuloxias are a slate gray with pinkish-red patches on their face, crest, tail, and in a stripe going down the center of their chest. The females are a warm brown with subtle steaks of red in the crest and wings and sometimes a little in the face. With a shape and song very similar to the more familiar Northern Cardinal, this bird is most easily distinguished by its bill, which is bright yellow and heavy with a squashed-in appearance instead of the dainty, coral pink beak of a Northern Cardinal. Also called the “Desert Cardinal,” this hardy bird thrives in the dry climate of the Sonoran Desert but will also venture into urban Tucson if there is a large patch of native vegetation. Next time you hear that familiar “tink” call you associate with cardinals, take a second look as it may be a Pyrrhuloxia