Cardinals and Pyrrhuloxias

It would be difficult to mistake the male cardinal for any other North American bird. His bright red feathers, distinct head crest, and black mask and throat patch set him apart from all the rest. He is a welcome resident throughout the United States, and his popularity has earned him the distinction of being the state bird for Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina. Audubon declared, "In richness of plumage, elegance of motion and strength of song, this species surpasses all its kindred in the United States."

The female cardinal did not receive an equal measure of flamboyant good looks. She has the distinctive crest and red bill of the male, but her yellowish, cinnamon-brown plumage contains only touches of red. One birder described her as looking as if she were wearing an ashy-brown chiffon veil over a rose dress. This "chiffon veil" might also be thought of as a camouflage suit, which allows her and her young to hide from predators. Unlike the females in most species, she is an accomplished vocalist and may be heard singing along with the male. Many admirers believe her song more than makes up for her drab appearance.

The soft warbling of young cardinals, quite unlike the adult vocalizations, does not begin to contain adult sounds until the young are about two months old. At first the crested fledglings are even duller and browner than their mother. As time passes, their blackish bills slowly lighten, going through stages of purple and raspberry before finally becoming red. Their short, stubby tail feathers lengthen, and by the time the young have their first winter plumage, they look like their parents.

Male cardinal

A close relative of the cardinal, which the less observant person may mistake for a female cardinal, is the pyrrhuloxia (pir-ah-LOX-see-ah). This bird has the same conspicuous crest, but its bill is yellow, and it has gray plumage tinged with red. The crest, mask, throat, chest, tail, and wing tips of the male are highlighted with obvious red. When the pyrrhuloxia's crest is flattened, its short curved bill and round head give it the bored look of a caged parrot. However, when the crest is raised to its full height and thrown forward, the bird becomes the picture of alertness. The female pyrrhuloxia is mostly grayish brown with a touch of red in her crest, wings, and tail. The young resemble her, but they have lighter underparts and a dusky-colored bill.

Southwestern deserts and plains are home to pyrrhuloxias. In Texas they live in the arid Brush Country, preferring a thorny scrub of mesquite, cactus, acacia, and yucca to the bushes, shrubs, trees, and backyard habitats of the cardinal. No interbreeding of the two species occurs, even in areas where their ranges overlap.

Pyrrhuloxias congregate in large feeding flocks during the winter. On rare occasion a flock may contain as many as one thousand birds. When these winter flocks break up, the competition for nesting territories begins. It is not unusual to find the female helping her mate chase off the competition. Once the couple has established its territorial boundaries, the female selects a thorny thicket in which to construct her cuplike nest, composed of strips of bark, grasses, and twigs. She lines it with fine grasses and other vegetable fibers before laying her three to four eggs. Their white shells are marked with shades of dark brown and purplish gray.

Cardinals also gather in sociable groups during the winter, but these groups rarely contain more than twenty-five individual birds, with smaller groups the rule. Since they do not migrate, cardinals must sustain themselves on whatever is available, regardless of the weather. For this reason, they are common visitors to backyard feeding stations and offer hours of watching enjoyment to those who cater to their needs.

The male cardinal is an aggressive defender of his home territory and quick to attack any trespassers when spring boundaries are being established. So highly developed is this aggression that male cardinals have been observed fighting their own reflections in mirrors, window panes, hubcaps, and bumpers. They will go so far as to attack red objects.

Once the territorial claims are established, the female is attracted and courted by song. She then selects a dense tangle of vegetation in a thicket or patch of shrubbery as a nest site. Her nest, similar to that of the pyrrhuloxia, will hold three or four greenish or bluish white eggs spotted with reddish brown. During the two weeks she incubates the eggs, the male cardinal feeds her. When the eggs hatch, his duties are far from over. He helps the female gather food for the nestlings, and when they become fledglings, he takes over their care and feeding so the female can start a second brood. Cardinals are enthusiastic breeders and occasionally will raise as many as three broods in a single nesting season. The parents and their broods often stay together throughout the winter season.

Female cardinals and their young are more secretive in their habits than the male. Much of their time is spent in the thick tangles of brush. The male prefers an open perch high above the ground where he can sing to all the world. According to Harry C. Oberholser's book The Bird Life of Texas, the call note of the cardinal is a sharp, emphatic tchip or whit. His song is loud, clear, rich, variable whistles, usually sustained and distinctly phrased: Hew, hew, hew hew hew hew or what-cheer, hew hew hew or hew, whoit whoit whoit whoit. The female sings more softly and somewhat less frequently than the male.

The pyrrhuloxia's call note is a sharp, metallic cheek. His songs include a series of loud, metallic quinks and a thin, slurred what-cheer, what-cheer, etc. Both songs suggest the vocalizations of the cardinal, but neither is as long or as full and rich. Although female pyrrhuloxias are capable of song, they rarely sing.

The cardinal is delightful to hear and beautiful to see, but despite Audubon's description, it is not a graceful bird. Its flight is quick, jerky, and noisy. Perhaps for this reason it restricts its movements to short flights between bushes, trees, and the ground. Its quick, jerky flight is perfect for darting around in thick vegetation.

Cardinals and pyrrhuloxias will no doubt continue to confuse the casual observer. However, those who take the time to get to know them will be able to appreciate their subtle differences.

Additional Information:

Ilo Hiller
1989 – Cardinals and Pyrrhuloxias: Introducing Birds to Young Naturalists. The Louise Lindsey Merrick Texas Environment Series, No. 9, pp. 28-31. Texas A&M University Press, College Station.