Dateline – February 24, 2017
How Do You Pronounce the Word “Pyrrhuloxia?” Oh, its a hard question, to be sure. But to me the actual pronunciation of the word “Pryyhuloxia” is of secondary importance. I am just glad to finally have the chance to see one of these rare-in-the-metroplex birds.
Traditionally this bird’s range has been thought to be limited to the farther reaches of south and southwest Texas. But over the years I have become aware of a few places in the Dallas/Fort Worth area where these charming little Northern Cardinal-look-a-likes turn up time and again during our cooler months.
There are just a handful of spots like these in the metroplex. And the Pryyhuloxias at these places return year after year like clockwork—each individual bird imprinted on a particular DFW wintering ground for some, unknown reason.
To track down one of these little birds can be something of a challenge. The Pyrrhuloxia is a medium-sized songbird which superficially resembles a female Northern Cardinal. The Northern Cardinal is native to North Texas and very common here. To make matters worse, they prefer the exact same type of habitat as does the Pyrrhuloxia. Wherever you might find a Pyrrhuloxia, you will also find a whole lot of Northern Cardinals!
So, not only do you have to track down a tiny gray bird in a sea of winter-gloomy trees and brush, but you also have to pick it out of a lineup of possibly dozens of doppelganging female cardinals. Its not an easy job. There is some serendipity required.
My lucky day came on a beautiful, warm early afternoon in late February. From the pictures of Pyrrhuloxias I had seen online, I suspected that these birds might be a bit more tolerant of observation than the normally skittish Northern Cardinal. And if the Pyrrhuloxia I located is any example, then I was correct.
I first came across this female Pyrrhuloxia as she sat perched on a low branch just a few feet from the trail. She did not seem overly concerned by my presence. Later, I spotted her again as she fed on a praying mantis egg case in open view. All in all, I spent almost an 30 minutes photographing this bird before I began to feel I might be intruding on her, and called it quits. Some of my pictures from this session can be seen below…
Here are some of the things Wikipedia has to say about the Pyrrhuloxia:
The pyrrhuloxia or desert cardinal (Cardinalis sinuatus) is a medium-sized North American song bird found in the American southwest and northern Mexico. This distinctive species with a short, stout bill, red crest and wings, closely resembles the northern and the vermilion cardinals which are in the same genus.
The pyrrhuloxia is a year-round resident of desert scrub and mesquite thickets, in the U.S. states of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas and woodland edges in Mexico. It occupies the southwestern half of Texas, approximately the southern third of New Mexico, and southeastern region of Arizona. Its range flows further south inhabiting areas from the west to east coast of Mexico north of the Sierra Madre del Sur, Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt and Isthmus of Tehuantepec, whilst excluding the Sierra Madre Occidental. An individual of the species has reportedly been seen as far away from its dominant range as Costa Mesa, California in Orange County.
This cardinal is relatively nonmigratory, though it may occasionally stray slightly north of its usual range. The pyrrhuloxia prefers habitat along stream beds. In areas where the range of the pyrrhuloxia and northern cardinal overlap, hybridization may occur between them. There seem to be no conflicts between the species as none have yet been reported.
The pyrrhuloxia’s diet consists of seeds, fruits and insects. While foraging, the desert cardinal will snatch insects from trees as well as pick seeds predominantly from the stalks of grasses and similar plants. It also seeks out cactus fruit for consumption. This bird is a benefit to cotton fields as it assists in eating populations of cotton worms and weevils. This species of cardinal also visits bird feeders and in the winter forages in huge flocks, sometimes numbering in the thousands.
The breeding season for this cardinal usually begins in mid-March, ending in mid-August. As the breeding season approaches, territories are established and defended by the male. The male defends the territory by chasing away intruders and from a good vantage point, singing. Where both the desert and northern cardinal breeding territories overlap, no inter-species conflicts have been observed.
The desert cardinal places its nest in dense shrub, often concealed. The nest is small and forms a bowl or cup-like shape made up of grass, twigs or bits of tree bark. Clutches of two to four eggs are most common while the eggs are whitish with specks of green or gray. During an incubation period of two weeks, the male brings food to the female. At hatching the chicks are helpless and have a bright yellow bill with red lining around the mouth. The chicks fledge in approximately ten days while both male and female tend to the young. The young bird can wait for up to a month before fully fledging, becoming independent and feeding in large flocks. During this period the bird will achieve complete growth.
Oh, and by the way, “Pyrrhuloxia” is pronounced like this: [pir-uh-lok-see-uh]. Now, see if you can learn to spell it. There will be a test later!