Often occurring in small flocks during much of the year, Pyrrhuloxias set up breeding territories of about two and one-half acres in size in early spring. Despite their similarity in plumage and voice to the Northern Cardinal, Pyrrhuloxias do not appear to compete with cardinals where their ranges overlap.
Brown-headed Cowbirds sometimes parasitize Pyrrhuloxia nests, and seldom succeed in raising their own young when this happens. Parasitism rates are much higher for the Northern Cardinal, but cowbird success appears to be lower in cardinal nests than in Pyrrhuloxia nests.
On this page
Description of the Pyrrhuloxia
The Pyrrhuloxia is a Northern Cardinal-sized and shaped bird, mostly grayish in color with red in the wings, tail edgings, and long crest. Its bill is thick and somewhat rounded.
Males have red on the throat, continuing in a downward strip down across the breast and belly.
Females have plain grayish underparts.
Seasonal change in appearance
The bills of adult birds are yellowish in the summer and dusky grayish in the winter.
Juveniles are similar to adult females, with grayish bills.
Pyrrhuloxias are found in deserts, dense brush, and mesquite groves.
Pyrrhuloxias eat insects, seeds, and berries.
Pyrrhuloxias forage primarily on the ground, and often in flocks outside of the breeding season.
Pyrrhuloxias are found in arid parts of southwest Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, and Mexico. The population has declined in recent decades.
Pyrrhuloxias often wander away from breeding areas in winter, sometimes showing up far north, east, or west of their normal range.
The Pyrrhuloxia is sometimes referred to as the “desert cardinal” because of its resemblance to the Northern Cardinal, though it is usually found in drier areas than its relative.
The song is a series of Northern Cardinal-like whistles, and the common “chink” call is sharper than that of its relative.
- The Northern Cardinal has more extensive red in the wings and tail,, black in the face, and a reddish, more pointed bill.
The nest is a cup of thorny twigs, grass, and weed stems lined with softer materials. It is usually placed in a thorny tree such as mesquite.
Number: Usually lay 3-4 eggs.
Color: White or greenish-white with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 14 days, and leave the nest in another 10 days, though continuing to associate with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Pyrrhuloxia
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Pyrrhuloxia – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
PYRRHULOXIA SINUATA SINUATA (Bonaparte)
HABITSContributed by ALFRED O. GROSS
The pyrrhuloxia was first described by Bonaparte (1837) under the name Cardinalis sinuatus. The type specimen was an adult male which was later acquired l)y the British Museum in 1855. It has a label “W. Mexico Type” and on the reverse side “Cardinalis sinusatus No. 3.” Later the name was changed to Pyrrhuloxia sinuata Bonaparte (1850). Robert Ridgway (1887b) described two new races, one Fyrrhuloria sinnata beekhami, the Arizona pyrrhuloxia, with a distribution of southern Arizona and New Mexico, and the form Pyrrhuloxia sinuata peninsulae, the San Lucas pyrrhuloxia, from a type taken at San Jose del Cabo, Lower California, with a habitat in the arid tropical zone of the Capedistrict as far north as lat. 26 deg 40 min. Ridgway (1897), after seeing the original description of Cardinalis sinuatus and discovering that the locality of the type was western Mexico concluded that the name sinuatus in a constricted sense belongs to the form which he had described as Pyrrhuloxia sinuata beckhami in 1887. The eastern for]n known by the vernacular name of Texas cardinal was given a new name, Pyrrhuloxia sinuata texana, which according to Ridgwav was the true Pyrrhuloxia sinuata with a range that includes the Lower Sonoran Zone from Nueces, Bee, Bexar, Kendall, and Tom Green Counties, Texas, south through eastern Mexico to Puebla. Thus the status of these three forms of the pyrrhuloxia stood until the whole matter was reviewed by A. J. van Rossem (1934a). Van Rossem has shown conclusively that Bonaparte’s type specimen is a good example of Pyrrhulozia sinuata texa~a Ridgway and that the name Pyrrhulozia sinuota sinuata (Bonaparte) should be applied to those birds. According to van Rossem, the type of Pyrrhuloxia sinuata ~eckhami Ridgway, which was taken at El Paso, Tex., is in the same category, since modern skins from the same locality cannot be distinguished from lower Rio Grande birds. Therefore the form Pyrrhuloxia sinuata sinuata, the Texas pyrrhuloxia, includes all these birds in the Lower Austral Zone of southeastern New Mexico southeastward across Texas and south through Mexico to Puebla and Zacatecas. The fulvous-toned western bird that is smaller in size and with a virtual absence of black intermixture in the red of the face is given a new subspecific name, Pyrrhuloxia sinuata Julvescens van Rossem. This race is distributed in south-central Arizona from the vicinity of Tucson, south through the Lower Sonoran and Arid Tropical Zones of Sonora, Sina]oa, western Durango, and Nayarit of Mexico. The two races, according to van Rossem, occupy ranges that are apparently completely isolated one from the other, but distribution is practically continuous within the range of each race.
The common name of the form sinuata, Texas pyrrhuloxia, is very appropriate, for the stronghold of this subspecies in the United States is the State of Texas. It is especially abundant along the Rio Grande River, as well as in southwestern Texas. According to Austin P. Smith (1910) the Texas pyrrhuloxia is very abundant on the coast east of Brownsville, Tex., where as many as 50 of these birds may be observed in a morning walk along the Gulf. On Oct. 28, 1909, after a severe northern storm, the autumn migration reached a maximum, when immense flocks of pyrrhuloxias were seen. The Texas pyrrhuloxia is a shyer bird than the gray-tailed cardinal, though more communistic, going about in small flocks at least during the winter months. The males are more suspicious, and there seem to be remarkably fewer of them than of the duller-colored females. Allan Brooks (1933) reported that at Brownsville, Tex., during the winter of 1927: 28 there was a very small proportion of adult males, and he estimated that there were six dull colored to every pink one. The birds are difficult to follow when disturbed because of flights of considerable distance taken at short intervals. Though often found feeding on the ground, they are much less terrestrial in habit than the cardinal. Mesquite beans form a favorite food during a portion of the winter. In Brooks County, Tex., about 125 miles northwest of Brownsville, Smith (1913) states that the pyrrhuloxia is a common resident, largely replacing the gray-tailed cardinal. With the advent of the nesting season the Texas pyrrhuloxia loses much of its shyness and resorts to the neighborhood of human habitation, where along with the western mockingbird and the curve-billed thrasher its song is a most striking feature of the advent of spring.
Nesting: Van Tyne and Sutton (1937) found the Texas pyrrhuloxia in various parts of Brewster County, southwestern Texas, especially where mesquite thickets grew. A nest containing three eggs was found May 21, 1934, in an open thorny bush about 3 miles northeast of Buruham Ranch, and two young recently out o~ the nest were taken at Glenn Spring on June 4 and 5,1935. Burleigh and Lowery (1940) found the birds on the open desert east of Guadalupe Peak of the Guadalupe Mountains at an elevation of 4,800 feet on April 29, 1939.
Herbert Brandt (1940) describes the nest and habits of the Texas pyrrhuloxias he observed in Brewster County, Tex., as follows:
In the three-forked crotch, shoulder-high, of an ungainly1 blooming catelaw was the grass-formed nest of a Texas Pyrrhuloxia containing two fresh, well marked eggs, which are noticeably smaller than those of the Cardinal: a bird we did not encounter in this region, although the Pyrrhuloxia was a common thicket dweller in the chaparral bordering watered places. The Texas Pyrrhuloxia is one of the most startling creatures that I have ever lured to my call. As he approaches, with loud round chirps, a vivid flash of crimson, a great blunt bill of rich ol~i Ivory, and a tall crest tipped with deep wine red are one’s first impressions. Closer inspection shows his lower mandible to be conspiouously thicker than even the broad upper one, which is sharply decurved and gives the bird a parrot-like countenance; while the variable expressive crest creates a versatility of facial expression. His cheery whistle is neither as loud nor as pure es the Cardinal’s, having a rather reedy quality, nor does he seem to be so persistent a singer. But like the latter, he responds eagerly to human imitation of bird-calls, approaching the observer with his motile crest sharply erect. In hand, each light gray feather of the breast has but the tip sprayed more or less with crimson, and the breast looks as though a paint brush had been passed hastily but once across the bird’s plumage, yet this fiery pigment is so intense that in life it amazes the eye and arouses the admiration of the beholder. * * * The female lacks th~t lively color, and thus simulates protectively the more modest tones of her dun desert home.
In Mexico, Sutton and Burleigh (1939) found the Texas pyrrhuloxia about Monterey, Nuevo Le6n, during the period Jan. 28 to Feb. 8, 1938. It was fairly common in the San Pedro district of Coahuila and in Victoria, Tamaulipas. On Feb. 15: 17, 1938, they found it present at an elevation of 2,500 feet on the Mesa del Chipinque. Burleigh and Lowery (1942) found several pairs in a small arroyo in the open desert country west of Saltille, Coahuila, Mexico, on Apr. 22, 1941. Amadon and Phillips (1947) collected an immature Texas pyrrhuloxia at Las Delicias, Coahuila, Aug. 10, 1946. Sutton and Burleigh (1940b) found these birds in thorny thickets about Valles, San Luis Potosi. These and other records show the Texas pyrrhuloxia to be well represented throughout northeastern Mexico.
Eggs: The number of eggs laid by the pyrrhuloxia varies from two to four, and rarely five, with three or four composing the usual set. They are usually ovate in shape and somewhat glossy. The ground is grayish white or greenish white, variously speckled, spotted, or blotched with shades of browns such as “pecan brown,” “mummy brown,” “sayal brown,” “tawny-olive,” or “Soccardo’s umber,” with undermarkings of “pale mouse gray,” “pale Quaker drab,” or “dark Quaker drab.” Generally the markings are well scattered over the entire egg, which may be either heavily speckled or sparingly colored with large irregular spots or blotches. The eggs of the pyrrhuloxia cannot, with certainty, be distinguished from those of the cardinal, although they average somewhat smaller.
The measurements of 50 eggs average 24.5 by 17.8 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 27.2 by 18.8, 24.7 by 18.9, 21.9 by 17.0, and 22.9 by 16.0 millimeters.
Range: The Texas pyrrhuloxia is resident from southern New Mexico (Mimbres, Tularosa, Lakewood) and western, central, and southeastern Texas (Kendall County, Colinesneil) south to Michoackn (San Agustin), Quer6taro, and southern Tamaulipas (Juamave).
Egg dates: Texas: 66 records, March 13 to July 29; 38 records, April 23 to May 19.
PYRRHULOXLA SINUATA FULVESCENS van Rossem
Contributed by ANDERS H. ANDERSON
( Incorporating material from an unfinished manuscript by Mr. Bent.)
As Mr. Bent points out, the above generic name is a combination of two Latin words, p~trrhu1a, a bullfinch, and loxia, a crossbill. This bird resembles a bullfinch in its short, thick bill, but its resemblance to a crossbill is not so apparent, although its upper mandible is somewhat decurved. The Latin loxia is derived from a Greek word meaning crooked. The name may be perfectly logical as a scientific name, but it seems a pity that this handsome bird could not be known by some simpler and more euphonious common name. It has been celled the bullfinch cardinal, on account of its similar bill, and the name gray cardinal has been suggested, since so much of its plumage is in a soft and pleasing shade of gray. Either of these names would be appropriate and popular.
The specimens from which this species was first described by Bonaparte, under the name .sinuata, came from the vicinity of Mexico City. Since then the species has been subdivided into three races, the Texas bird, the Arizona bird, and the San Lucas bird. A. J. van Rossem (1934a) is the authority for the above subspeciflc name for the Arizona bird. He says that this race, in comparison with sinuata, is slightly smaller, with “paler and more fulvous coloration, and a virtual absence of black intermixture in the red of the face and crest of the males * * ~” In rearrangement of the races found within the United States, he assigns P. s. sinuata, (Bonaparte) to the “Lower Austral Zone of southern and southeastern New Mexico, southeastward across Texas and south through Mexico to Puebla and Zacatecas.” He gives the range of P. s.fulvescens van Rossem as: “Southcentral Arizona, from the vicinity of Tucson south, through the Lower Sonoran and Arid Tropical Zones of Sonora, Sinalos, western Durango and Nayarit.”
If one takes Mr. Bent’s comments literally, this statement of the range of the Arizona bird is somewhat inaccurate. There are large areas of the Lower Sonoran Zone where no pyrrhuloxias are to be found, it is a bird of the mesquite edge, and this edge is usually the border of a large arroyo, or a remnant of mesquite forest on the bank of an erod~id river valley, or the thorny brush at the lower, widened portion of a mountain canyon. The deeper river bottom growth of cottonwoods and willows and the fringe of Baccharis and Hymenoclea in the sands may harbor a few cardinals, but seldom pyrrhuloxias. On adjacent farmlands on the benches above the larger intermittent rivers, man has created a most favorable habitat. His fences, overgrown untidily with mesquite, hackberry, and elder, furnish shelter, nesting sites, and food; there is food, too, in the cultivated fields nearby.
The pyrrhuloxia is common to abundant along the Santa Cruz River from Tucson southward; it follows the San Pedro River from Aravaipa Creek to the Mexican border. Sutton and Phillips (1942) reported it from various points in the Papago indian Reservation westward as far as the border of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. it ranges to the live oak edge of the Upper Sonoran Zone at Oracle, at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains, and in the Santa Rita Mountains. Bailey (1923) reported it as found “in Madera Canyon at 4,900 feet, where there was a patch of Lower Sonoran mesquite.” Swarth (1929) found it at the “north end and along the western base of the Santa Ritas.” Phillips (1933) found it at the Fresnal ranch at 4,000 feet in the Baboquivari Mountains. Brandt (1951) thought they were more numerous along the San Pedro River than along the Santa Cruz.
No migrm~tion has been observed, although concentrations of birds in the winter, probably near plentiful food supplies, sometimes give the impression of group wanderings. Christmas bird counts are revealing in regard to abundance. in most localities in Texas, P. s. si’nuata is far outnumbered by the cardinal. Near Tucson P. s. fulvescens is likewise behind the cardinal in the Rillito drainage valley. However, along the Santa Cruz River the pyrrhuloxia leads in almost every winter census. In 1947 there were 53 pyrrhuloxias and 25 cardinals recorded. No summer counts are available.
Why the pyrrhuloxia has not established itself in the irrigated farmlands along the Gila River westward to the Colorado River is not known. Certainly it cannot be because of the higher temperatures of the lower elevations, because the species occurs in Sonora, Mexico, at probable equally high temperatures and also at sea level.
Mr. Bent found a few pairs of the Arizona bird in the mesquite brush along the San Pedro River near Fairbanks, and found it common in the mesquite forest along the Santa Cruz River, south of Tucson. In the Santa Rita Mountains, Mrs. Bailey (1923) reported it as found “in Madera Canyon at 4,900 feet, where there was a patch of Lower Sonoran mesquite” and in stony gulches “bordered by mesquite.” It might well be called the mesquite cardinal, since it seems fond of this association, but it is also seen at times in trees about houses.
Territory: Some years before the intensive studies of territorial behavior of birds began, Willard (1918) expressed the belief that pyrrliuloxias remain mated for life. He had found them nesting year after year in the same locations. Very probably it was the location and not necessarily the pair that was constant. We know today that good territories are usually occupied regularly. Whatever the status of the birds’ bond, the pairing must begin very early in the spring, even when groups of individuals are in evidence. By the middle of February singing can be heard. Although the extent of territorial boundaries is not known, Brandt (1951) gave us a hint of the presence of territorial boundaries when he reported finding a pair of pyrrhuloxias “about every hundred yards” near the San Pedro River.
Gould (1961) studied the behavior of cardinals and pyrrhuloxias on a 42-acre tract 10 miles south of Tucson, Ariz. He reported that their behavior is “basically very similar,” and writes:
With the break-up of winter flocks in late February and March, the males of both species became highly pugnacious. This initial activity consisted primarily of individuals chasing each other and it occurred within groups of up to five birds. * * * Female pyrrhuloxias, but never female Cardinals, were noticed to engage in chasing activities, often with the males. These chases apparently establish a dominance order between the individuals so that the most aggressive male succeeds in taking the best territory. * * * During late April and early May definite territorial houndaries became established. As in the early stages of this process, only tho male Cardinal, but both the male and female Pyrrhuloxia were involved. On one occasion a pair of Pyrrhuloxias was noticed moving about an area which eventually became their territory. At one point another pair was encountered and all four birds engaged in a vigorous fight. The intruding pair was driven out and was never noticed to encroach on that area again.
Territories once established were maintained almost entirely by the males of both species. The female assisted in defense only when the nest or young were threatened directly. * * * When a Pyrrhuloxia nest and eggs were examined the female completely disappeared, but the male often stayed in the same tree and sang vigorously. If young were in the nest, the male, and sometimes the female, would fly Around excitedly singing or giving their chatter call.* * * Territory was maintained in three primary ways: combat, proclamation, and patrolling. Combat, which includes both fighting and chasing, was noticed in both species, but it was much more vigorous in the Pyrrhuloxia. An intruding bird would be met, usually near the boundaries of the territory and either a fight or a chase, and often both, would follow. In all cases the intruder was forced to leave the area. If contact was made well within the territory, the intruder was much more prone to take flight, resulting in a chase. Jf contact was made near the boundary, then a fight was more likely to occur. For the most part, intrusions were made only by males of adjoining territories. Unmated birds passing through the area were generally tolerated, but an established bird never was. * *
Proclamation of territory consisted of intensive singing on the part of the males of both species. It was most frequent during the early morning, when a chorus of many birds could be heard. At this time singing would usually be from a favored site within the center of activity of the territory. Occasionally during the day competitive singing between males of the same species was heard. This was equally common in the Cardinals and Pyrrhuloxias. The males sang either in uhison or alternated with each other. This type of song was most common between males of adjoining territories. Competitive singing between widely sepatated males was heard on only a few occasions.
Patrolling was noted in both species; however, only the Pyrrhuloxia followed a regular pattern. * * * After the initial singing in the morning the male would make his rdunds, singing a few songs in one bush and then in the next, until a complete circuit had been made. He was never observed outside of the area *
Once the young are out of the nest, territorial defense and maintenance were reduced, and they stopped entirely if it was late in the season. If a nest was destroyed, territorial activity increased although it never reached the peak of the initial activity. Individual pairs of both species were seen to make as many as three attempts at renesting, with a recurrence of high territorial activity, if their nests *ere abandoned or destroyed.
Gould says that cardinals defend their territories only against trespass bSr other cardinals and that pyrrhuloxias defend their areas only against other pyrrhuloxias. In the 42 acres of the study area, he reports: that: territories of six Cardinals and ten Pyrrhuloxias were established * * *ï The total portion of the study area occupied by Cardinals was 54.5 per cent, wheras that occupied by the Pyrrhuloxias was 60 per cent. Both species required a suitable amount of woodland within each territory. An average of 45 per cent of the territory of each pair of Cardinals and 43 per cent of the territory of each pair of Pyrrhuloxias included mesquite woodland * * * Cardinals appeared to require denser woodland in which to nest than did Pyrrhuloxias. An example of this was the fact that, although Cardinals were occasionally seen and heard to sing from an open mesquite patch, none established a territory there. One pair of Pyrrhuloxias, however, was able to establish a territory at this spot and raise one family. Tids patch consisted of small and widely spaced mesquite trees with much open, weed-covered ground between them. In other areas near Tucson Cardinals were found nesting in hedgerows between open fields, bu~ these were always fairly dense and contained large trees. Ln these same areas the Pyrrhuloxias were often found nesting in trees with little or no vegetation around them.
Both Cardinals and Pyrrhuloxias appear to prefer an open field within the limits of their territory. * * * The fact that one territory did not include such an area shows that this is not ahsolutely necessary. * * * Often birds of both species were seen feeding together in groups outside of their territories. No conflicts were noticed on these occasions, indicating that these feeding areas were not part of established territories.
Gould found that the shape of the territories was roughly circular. Seven pyrrhuloxia territories averaged 2.5 acres each; they ranged from a minimum of 1.3 acres to a maximum of 3.5 acres. His trapping results showed that the pyrrhuloxias outnumbered the cardinals in the area by about 2 to 1.
Gould observed that: “The size and shape of the territories remained fairly stable during the summer. However, a few niinor fluctuations were noted. These were primarily the result of the shifting of the center of activity when a new nest was built. If the new nest was built on the opposite end of the territory from the old one, then the region of the old nest was not defended as often nor as vigorously as before. This allowed a neighboring pair to gain control of the vacated area.” He observed that nest sites were “placed without regard to the size or shape of the territory. Some were in the middle and others were at the edge *
Nesting: Courtship feeding, which we might call marital feeding because it also occurs during incubation, begins in February. On February 28 a female came to our feeding table in the back lot. A few moments later a male landed beside her. At once she flew into a nearby creosote bush and perched, waiting. The male fed for several minutes, then suddenly flew up to the female and fed her. He then returned to the table and resumed his meal. She waited, while he finished and left. Not until then did she venture back to the food.
Nest building apparently does not start until April. My earliest record is April 7, when a pair started a nest in a mistletoe clump in a catelaw bush near Rillito Creek. Unfortunately, they discontinued work the same day, perhaps undecided or alarmed at my discovery. By April 20 they had built another nest in similar surroundings a short distance away, which contained three eggs when we found it (Anderson and Anderson, 1946). Nesting continues at least until July, but whether more than one brood is attempted has not been determined. Late nests may indicate earlier failures. Brandt (1951) says the height of the season is the first week in June. He reports nests with eggs in late May. Sutton and Phillips (1942) found eggs just hatching on June 7 on the Papago Indian Reservation.
Additional observations are furnished by Gould (1961) from his research in the Tucson area. He writes:
Nest building is apparently carried out primarily by the females of both species. Observations on one Cardinal and one Pyrrhuloxia nest under construction showed only the females building, while the males stayed far back in the trees singing. Most nest material, with only one observed exception, was gathered within the established territory. I never saw material gathered within the territory of another pair.
Egg laying may occur any time in the months of May, June, July, and early August * * *ï The most active period for both species was the first two weeks in June. Pairs found nesting in August had probably been unsuccessful in earlier nestings. Clutch size of the cardinal varied from two to four eggs and averaged three. Clutch size of the Pyrrhuloxia varied between two and three eggs, both numbers being equally common.
Nests have been observed in mesquites, catelaw, and condalia bushes at heights from 53~ to 7 feet above the ground. When placed in the dense leafless mistletoe (Phoradendron calijornicurn) common to desert leguminous shrubs, there is a measure of concealment. Mrs. Bailey (1928) says that in New Mexico, the nest is placed “in mesquite and thorny bushes,” is “small and compactly built of twigs, inner bark, or coarse grass, lined with a few rootlets or fine grass and fibers.” Brandt (1951) gives us more detail: “Nest situated 5Y~ feet up in a bushy mesquite shrtib of many boles; a gray affair, made of a variety of weed stems and some cobwebs, but no large leaves or pepper grass as used by Cardinal; lining of pale brown rootlets; nest neat, small, compact, with well made rim. Measurements, height, 3.50; width, 4 by 4.25; bowl depth, 2; bowl width, 2.25 by 2.50 inches. Contents, 3 eggs, incubation 4 days.”
Gould (1961) found that:
Nests and nest sites of the species were very similar. Eight Cardinal and 20 Pyrrhuloxia nests ranged between S and 15 feet above the ground, both averaging 8 feet. In the study area both preferred to nest either in mesquite or graythorn. One nest of the pyrrhuloxia was found in an elderberry. In other areas around Tucson, Cardinals were found to use tainarisk (Tamarix) trees, and Pyrrhuloxia nests were not uncommon in palo verde (Cercidium). Both species seemed to prefer thick patches of brush or dense hedgerows; however, of the two species, the Pyrrhuloxia utilized more open situations. Cardinals were much more apt to place their nest against a major trunk of a tree than were Pyrrhuloxias, but both usually placed it in the small twigs that occur on the secondary branches. Neither species anchored the nest securely to the twigs or branch on which it was placed. * * *
The nest of the Pyrrhuloxia was almost always constructed of dead material. Of 20 nests only one contained green material, and this amounted to only a few mesquite leaves that had been added to the outside. The nature of the material often gives the nest a very decidedly grayish appearance with brownish highlights. The cup was usually well lined with rootlets, and occasionally thin strips of bark, horse hairs, or very small plant stems and fibers were used. The nest was generally smaller and more compactly built than that of the Cardinal, but the difference was not as great as would be expected from the size difference between the two species.
Gould (1961) found the period of incubation to be 14 days from the laying of the last egg.
Incubation is probably performed entirely by the female. I have never found the male on the eggs. As we watched a nest one morning in May, the male arrived. The female uttered a few aquick sounds, not quite sharp enough to suggest alarm. Then the male flew to the edge of the nest, slowly reached forward and gave the female a small black insect which he carried in his bill. It was a thrilling and altogether pretty sight: like two painted figures in red and gray on a background of green.
Both sexes assist in feeding their nestlings. When the fledglings are sure of their wings, they follow their parents farther afield. Sometimes they traveled 300 to 400 yards from an abandoned nest in the riverbank thicket to our back yard. They probably returned to the safety of the mesquites each evening. The latest nesting I have noted (Anderson and Anderson, 1946) was when “On September 9,1945, a female appeared with a partly grown young bird that followed her about, begging vociferously until it was fed. This begging note, a tseep or seep sound, was heard frquently around our house during the following days and, usually when we looked outside, we found the female feeding the young bird. This dependence continued into the period of molt of the female. She appeared ragged on October 1. On October 12 she was last seen feeding her offspring which, at that time, was acquiring the male plumage. If we assume that the incubation period is approximately two weeks, and that the nestlings remain in the nest about ten days, then the eggs were probably laid about the middle of August.”
Most of the adult birds seen in the latter part of October have completed their fall molt.
Eggs: Gould (1961) reported that “The eggs of the two species are very similar and cannot always be told apart. In the Tucson area Cardinal eggs are somewhat larger and have a more bluish background color than those of the Pyrrbuloxia. The pattern of speckling is identical.”
The measurements of 50 eggs average 23.9 by 17.7 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 26.2 by 17.2, 24.9 by 19.1, 22.2 by 17.5, and 23.0 by 16.0 millimeters.
Plumages: Mr. Bent says the young pyrrhuloxia in juvenal plumage is much like the adult female, but the plumage is softer, more woolly, and the underparts are lighter in color, dull light grayish buff, nearly white on the abdomen; the middle and greater wing coverts are narrowly tipped with pale grayish huffy; the loral, orbital, and malar regions are tinged with red. The young male has the median underparts tinged more or less with rosy red, while there is no trace of red on these parts in the young female.
Food: Once in late February I saw a male nibbling at the fresh catkins of a low cottonwood tree. The small but attractive bright red fruits of the Christmas cactus (Opuntia leptocauli~) also may be eaten. Although pyrrhuloxias sometimes perch in the spiniest of our taller, arborescent chollas, I have never seen them touch the fruit.
In the autumn, along the narrow roads of the San Xavier Indian Reservation south of Tucson, groups of birds gather in the vicinity of abundant fbod supplies. Here the fences are overgrown with mesquite, elder, hackberry, and graythorn. Near the end of October when the hackberries were nearly gone, I found pyrrhuloxias eating green berries in the elder bushes, crowding out a few Gambel whitecrowned sparrows that had been attracted there first. Some of the nearby fields had been left fallow and were densely covered with pigweed and Johnson grass. Other fields had good stands of ripe hegari of two varieties. On all sides the ground and vegetation fairly moved with hordes of grasshoppers. They were everywhere, even in the upper branches of the mesquites, yet nowhere could I find a pyrrhuloxia actually eating a grasshopper, although I counted 42 birds on a 2-mile road, at least 20 in a strip about 200 yards long adjacent to a hegari field.
At a fence corner, where the hegari came right up to the mesquites, I found three females perching carefully on top of the 4- to 6-inch-long seed spikes. Each bird leaned over, pulled loose a large round seed, straightened up and ate it. As I watched, other pyrrhuloxias came at intervals to feed. They always clung to the top, ate off the top, and gradually worked downward by leaning forward till their bills were lower tha,n their feet. The seeds in this area of about 10 feet square had been eaten almost entirely, while the hegari farther away from the mesquites appeared untouched. Here and there close to the fence hedge I saw many partially consumed spikes. One got the feeling that had the Indians planted their hegari farther from the mesquites, the pyrrhuloxias might not have ventured into the open so frequently. Perhaps all the blame should not be placed on the pyrrhuloxias, for they had as companions numbers of Abert’s towbees, brown towbees, Gambel white-crowned sparrows, house finches, and even a few house sparrows, any of which may have helped consume the Papago Indians’ hegari crop.
Near cotton fields the pyrrhuloxia must certainly be beneficial. Mrs. Bailey (1928) says: “In August and September (in which months all the stomachs examined were collected) the animal food amounting to 28.81 per cent was made up almost exclusively of harmful species, among which are the most important pests of the cotton plant, the cotton worm and the cotton boll weevil. Caterpillars, grasshoppers, and weevils are its favorite insects. Practically seventenths of the food consisted of weed seeds, the pernicious foxtail and burr grass amounting to 43.59 per cent of the food.”
Behavior: Elsewhere, Mrs. Bailey (1902) writes:
Though not so brilliant as the Cardinalis group, the pyrrhuloxias when among their native mesquites seem even more beautiful. The rose-colored vest that lights up their soft gray plumage gives an exquisite delicacy and freshness that adds charm to their individuality and sprightliness. Their expression changes astonishingly with the movement of their crest. When it is flattened the short curved bill and round head suggest a bored parrot in a cage, but when the crest is raised to its full height and thrown forward, the beautiful bird is the picture of alert interest and vivacity. * *
A pair whose nest was stumbled on in the mesquite showed their mutual solicitude in such a charming manner, the male bursting into song to draw our attention from his mate and nest, that it seemed as if rare pleasure lay in store for the bird student with leisure to study their attractive ways.
Along the Rillito Valley, at the north edge of Tucson, Ariz., there are many homes scattered among the mesquites, still undisturbed by the expanding real estate boom. Here the pyrrhuloxias are often found around the dooryards. They hop about on the ground searching for food beneath the shrubbery, and are easily attracted to a feeding table by various kinds of kitchen scraps. The numerous house sparrows do not bother them because the pyrrhuloxia is a larger bird and the sparrows wait their turn. Occasionally a pyrrhuloxia takes a bath in a pool, and less frequently it dips its bill for a drink. Like most desert birds they probably depend upon insects to satisfy their water requirements during the spring and summer. Loss of water is reduced by keeping in the shade as much as possible.
The flight of the pyrrhuloxia is noisy and undulating like that of the cardinal: a few wing beats, then a glide, a few more wing beats, then another brief glide. Flights are usually short, but once I saw a female take off across the street, above the telephone wires, for a distance of 200 feet. When flushed suddenly from a mesquite row they flutter noisly out a bit, then turn rapidly in again, sometimes gliding beautifully into the safety of the tangle.
Various observers have described the pyrrhuloxia as a shy bird. It invariably seeks cover when disturbed on its feeding grounds, or when pressed too close while singing.
Voice: Mr. Bent writes: “The loud whistling calls of the pyrrhuloxia are among the most delightful voices of the birds to be heard in the mesquite forest and gulches. One note is somewhat like the whistle of the cafion towhee, and others suggest some of the loud notes of the eastern cardinal.” As Merrill wrote to Mrs. Bailey (1928), “in spring it is a veritable temptation to forsake the trodden paths of duty and take to the open as it [the pyrrhuloxia] perches on the top of a mesquite nearby and repeatedly calls queet, queet, queet: quset, quset, queet: quee-u, quse-u. During the season of rearing the young, a variety of calls are given, varying from the rattling cheek, cheek, cheek, when molested, to soft family notes of a liquid, purring, interrogative character.”
So far as I have observed, only the male sings. He may use any elevated perch in the vicinity: electric poles and power lines furnish excellent points of vantage. There are exceptions, of course; once I saw a male singing vigorously on the ground.
Peterson (1941) interprets the song as “a clear quink quink quink quink quink, all on one note; also a slurred whistled what-cheer, whatcheer, etc., thinner and shorter than Cardinal’s song.”
To me this similarity to the cardinal’s song is often so exasperating that one is tempted to speculate upon which bird is mimicking the other. Even the experts can be puzzled. Herbert Brandt (1951) wrote of the Arizona race: “This bird’s merry whistle is, in some of its renditions, so much like some songs of the Cardinal that even Doctor Oberholser, who is an expert song student, was unable always to detect the difference. On one occasion we were sitting in the car listening to a persistent cardinal-type, whipping whistle, whereupon I asked the Doctor which bird it was, and he replied, ‘A Cardinal, probably.’ Putting a field glass on the distant bird, however, proved it to be a male Pyrrhuloxia in full voice.” The same can be said of the commonest call-note, the explosive note of alarm that is heard every time a bird is disturbed. Once, after a morning’s study in the field, I concluded that the pyrrhuloxia uttered a sharp squick or stick, while the cardinal emitted a more metallic tik. The extent of the alarm can be gaged by the rapidity and number of these sounds. Often three to five or more are fairly sputtered out as a bird takes flight. Some days later when I had the opportunity to try out my conclusion on an unseen bird, the pyrrhuloxia turned out to be a cardinal.
Again Gould’s (1961) careful work furnishes us with interesting observations. He reports:
Singing is important in the establishment and maintenance of territory in both the Cardinal and the Pyrrhuloxia. Their songs are so similar that they are often indistinguishable. The major difference in their songs lies in the phrasing used during one singing period. Individuals of both species are capable of a wide variety of song types. In the Cardinal one type is used over and over during one singing period, but the Pyrrhuloxia alternates different types. Although the females of both species are capable of singing, the female Pyrrhuloxia is rarely heard to do so. * * *
Both species have calls that differ greatly. * * * The Pyrrhuloxia has a harsh chattering call that is used in territorial disputes and as a contact device between members of a pair.
Songs of both species were heard as early as the second week in February. It was not until the middle of March that singing in both species reached its peak. Since nesting began in May, song probably served in mating and pair formation as well as in establishment of territory. Singing subsided during the latter stages of incubation and was rarely heard after the young were hatched. Singing was renewed after the first brood became independent if a second brood was attempted. Song in September was reduced to only a few scattered half-songs by one or two individuals.
Enemies: Dr. Friedmann (1934) mentions two nests of this bird containing cowbirds’ eggs.
Field marks: According to Mr. Bent, the adult male pyrrhuloxia s conspicuously marked; the dark gray back and pale gray under parts are offset by the crimson crest and the rose-red face and median under parts; even the wings and tail are tinged with red. The female is similar to the male, but there is much less red in the crest, under parts, wings, and tail; the under parts are huffy brown, with only a suggestion of red.
I would emphasize, however, that the bill provides the surest field mark. In the summer it is a clear yellow, while that of the cardinal is bright pink, almost a translucent agate pink. The bill of the cardinal retains this color for the entire year, but that of the pyrrhuloxia, as early as October, changes to brown or horn color. The shape of the bill, too, is distinctive. In fact, when one comes upon an immature bird, the only reliable character is the parrotlike curve and notch of the bill.
Range: The Arizona pyrrhuloxia is resident from central southern and southeastern Arizona (Sacaton, Tucson, San Bernardino Ranch) south to northern Nayarit (Acaponeta River) and western Durango (Tamazula).
Casual record: Casual in southern California (Mecca).
Egg dates: Arizona: 20 records, April 4 to June 15; 10 records, May11 to May 29.
SAN LUCAS PYRRHULOXIA
PYRRHULOXIA SINUATA PENINSULAE Ridgway
This Lower California race is similar in coloration to the mainland race of western Mexico but is decidedly smaller and has a larger bill. William Brewster (1902) says of its distribution: “This bird appears to be strictly confined to the Cape Region, where it is nowhere very common. Mr. Belding considered it more numerous in the interior than near the coast, but Mr. Frazar found it in the greatest numbers at Triunfo and San Jose del Cabo, the latter place being, of course, directly on the coast. About La Paz, however, only a single specimen was seen, and but one was obtained on the Sierra de Ia Laguna. At Santiago four were taken, and there is a skin in the collection from San Jos6 del Rancho. The bird is doubtless resident wherever found.”
Its haimt~s and habits are probably similar to those of adjacent races.
Eggs: The measurements of 15 eggs average 24.3 by 18.1 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure £5.7 by 19.8, £2.8 by 18.0, and 23.4 by 16.7 millimeters.
Range: The San Lucas pyrrhuloxia is resident in Baja California from about lat. 270 N. (San Ignacio, Santa Rosalia) south to Cape San Lucas.
Egg dates: Baja California: 6 records, April 19 to August 5; 3 records, May 3 to May 9.