Is that a Cardinal or a Pyrrhuloxia?


A Female Northern Cardinal could be Confused with a Pyrrhuloxia (photo Bob Bowers)

A Female Northern Cardinal could be Confused with a Pyrrhuloxia (photo Bob Bowers)

Whether you collect rocks or photograph wildflowers, it’s always more fun when you know what you are looking at.  Similarly, one of the pleasures of birding is being able to identify the birds you are watching.  A good field guide and a decent pair of binoculars work well for most of our birds.  However, some species are similar to others, juvenile birds often look like they were adopted, females like to be drab (we’re talking birds here) and they all refuse to wear name tags.


A Male Pyrrhuloxia with Bright Red Face and Yellow Bill (photo Bob Bowers)

A Male Pyrrhuloxia with Bright Red Face and Yellow Bill (photo Bob Bowers)

Two of our most colorful birds are the Northern cardinal and the Pyrrhuloxia.  We are quite fortunate to have either of these, let alone both of them, as year-round residents.  Both are common to Mexico, but other than in southern Arizona, Cardinals are found only east of New Mexico and north of Texas.  Pyrrhuloxias are much rarer, just barely ranging into Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.  Differentiating between a Northern cardinal and a Pyrrhuloxia can be perplexing, since both birds have many similarities, and in fact belong to the same genus.   Both have tall crests and red feathers, are the same size, weigh the same and have similar songs. 

Adult Cardinal males are easy to identify (bright red overall with a black face and a tall red crest), but then it gets more challenging.  Here are some tips to help you make the right choice:  If the bill is large, thickly pointed and red or red-orange, it’s a Cardinal.  If the bill is small, rounded, parrot-like and yellow, it’s a Pyrrhuloxia.  If there is any black on the face, around the bill and into the eye, it’s a Cardinal.  If the face is red around the bill and into the eye, it’s a Pyrrhuloxia.  If gray is a predominate color, it’s likely to be a Pyrrhuloxia.  If it’s a juvenile, focus on the bill size and shape (because both have similarly colored gray to black bills), but your best bet is to look around for nearby adults.  Males and females often travel together as well, so look for easier to identify males if you’re having trouble with a female. 


A Curve-billed Thrasher can Sing much like a Northern Mockingbird (photo Bob Bowers)

A Curve-billed Thrasher can Sing much like a Northern Mockingbird (photo Bob Bowers)

Northern mockingbirds and Curve-billed thrashers, both common to SaddleBrooke, present a different kind of identification problem.  They don’t look much alike, but their songs are almost identical.  The Thrasher usually sticks to his call, one or two sharp, high-pitched whistles, but when he decides to sing, he will perch on a cactus or wall and do a perfect imitation of a Mockingbird, who does a perfect imitation of all the other birds.  If the bird takes flight, and you see a large white wing patch, it’s a Northern mockingbird.  If it has a long and curved bill and a yellow eye, it’s a Curve-billed thrasher. 


A Sharp-shinned Hawk, Trying to Look Innocent and Harmless (photo Bob Bowers)

A Sharp-shinned Hawk, Trying to Look Innocent and Harmless (photo Bob Bowers)

Probably the toughest differentiation of common SaddleBrooke birds is between the Cooper’s hawk and the Sharp-shinned hawk.  The two species look virtually identical, with barred tails and streaked breasts (brown and white in juveniles, orange-brown and white in adults).  Cooper’s hawks are larger, but small Cooper’s and large Sharp-shinned overlap.  If you are seeing a small bird with a small head and a square tail, it’s likely to be a Sharp-shinned.  If your bird is closer to 15 inches than 12 in length, with a large head and a rounded tail in flight, it’s a Cooper’s.  If the bird is flying and the wing beats are stiff and shallow, it’s a Cooper’s.  If the wing beats are deep and remind you of a flicking wrist, it’s a Sharp-shinned.  Both of these hawks will come into your yard hunting other birds.  The Cooper’s likes doves while the Sharp-shinned prefers finches.  Finally, take a good look at the bird’s face.  A Cooper’s hawk looks like he wants to kill something soon.  A Sharp-shinned hawk tries to look like an innocent bystander, and wears a ‘Who me?’ expression.

(This article originally appeared in the August, 2009 issue of the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona.)

About Bob

A lifelong naturalist, Bob's avocation is birding, including field observation, study, photography and writing. He spent a career in computers and consulting, but his free time has been spent outdoors backpacking, fishing and enjoying nature firsthand. Bob has traveled extensively, exploring and photographing above and underwater in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Egypt and throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. Now retired, as an amateur ornithologist Bob studies, photographs and writes primarily about birds of the Western Hemisphere. Formerly the Feature Writer for Latin America and Caribbean Travel at, he has been Suite101's Feature Writer for Birds and Birding since January, 2010, and has received seven Editor's Choice awards, which are listed below. Bob also writes a monthly birding column for a newspaper in Arizona, and his work appears in the travel magazine, Another Day in Paradise, published in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. His blog, Birding the 'Brooke and Beyond, discusses birding, travel and other topics in Southeast Arizona and beyond. Bob is a member of the National and Tucson Audubon Societies, Western Field Ornithologists, Arizona Field Ornithologists, the American Birding Association and other birding and conservation organizations. Bob and his wife, Prudy, live in the Santa Catalina Mountain foothills near Tucson, Arizona. To date, Bob has received Suite101 Editor's Choice awards for the following articles: • Birding by Cruise Ship in the Caribbean • The Xantus' Hummingbird, Baja California's Only Endemic Hummer • Birding the White Mountains in and Around Greer, Arizona • The Greater Roadrunner, New Mexico's State Bird • Where to Find Steelhead on the Lower Deschutes River in Oregon • Birding La Bajada near San Blas, Mexico • The 2008 Christmas Bird Count at Estero del Yugo in Mazatlan
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