After spending some time getting acquainted with Southeast Arizona’s birds, new birders here must eventually face the question, “How do you say this bird’s name?” The “Purr-hull-ock-see-ah” gets its unique name from Greek words describing its coloration (pyrruos, “flame-colored or red”) and its kinked bill or culmen (loxuos, “crooked”). That’s all fine and dandy, but most of us would probably prefer to call the bird a Desert Cardinal—and some people do!
The Pyrrhuloxia, with its conspicuous red-tipped crest, face, tail, and breast, stately gray body, and large yellow bill, is indeed closely related to the Northern Cardinal, making the comparisons valid. Their songs and calls are very similar and difficult to tell apart, and here in Tucson, both birds can be found together in a number of locations. As a general rule though, Northern Cardinals usually prefer the shadier washes in the desert, while Pyrrhuloxias are mostly found in drier Sonoran Desert habitat. Adding to the confusion, the two species have been known to hybridize—the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum had a well-known hybrid bird in its aviary for years.
Although the Pyrrhuloxia is mostly known as a desert bird inhabiting Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Baja California, in winter it can sometimes be found all the way up in Colorado, Oklahoma, and even Kansas. We might need to reconsider that Desert Cardinal nickname!