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Melopyrrha nigra

Cuban Bullfinch

  • Order: Passeriformes
  • Family: Thraupidae
  • Polytypic 2 Subspecies

Authors: Ayón Güemes, Xochitl, Edwin Ruiz Rojas, and Eduardo E. Iñigo-Elias



Cuban Bullfinch (Melopyrrha n. nigra) of the Island of Cuba, Island of Youth (formerly Pines) and surrounding coastal keys, is a small resident black bird with a thick curved bill and a conspicuous white patch on the edge of the wing (Gundlach 1876; Bond 1950, 1960; Raffaele 1998, 2003; Garrido and Kirkconnell 2011). The male is shiny black; the female is duller, with a smaller, less conspicuous white wing patch. The immature male resembles the female, but has a glossy black head and flight feathers. The juvenile is similar to the female, with greenish tipped feathers. The subspecies of Grand Cayman Island, M. n. taylori, the female and immature are grayish olive with a darker head.

Similar Species



The song of Cuban Bullfinch is a prolonged, pleasant and very melodious soft warbling ti-ti-tisissiiiitssiiiitsiiii-tooee-toeee (Bond 1960). It is suggested that there is geographic variation in the singing repertoire, this variation is not yet documented, the evidence being based on anecdotal observations in the field (Ayón, Ruiz and Iñigo-Elias pers. obs. ) as well as from bird trappers in Cuba who preferentially pursue birds from few regions (e.g., Pinar del Rio, Sancti Spiritu, Holguin, Santiago de Cuba) where the repertoire is believed to be larger and diverse.

Only the male sings, but both sexes produce call notes. Garrido and Kirkconnell (2011) described the calls as a staccato chi-dip and also a thin tsee, often repeated. Raffaelle (1998) mentions that the most characteristic call is a kind of buzzing chip. 
At least two kinds of alarm calls can be detected: a short, very high-pitched note that makes it very difficult to locate the bird, and a strong and repeated chok-chok (Ayón pers. obs.).
Singing frequency increases during the breeding season, especially when determining territory boundaries and during the nest construction. Males sing from an elevated perch more concealed among vegetation, and also during flying displays.

Due to the long and harmonious song, there is a tradition in Cuba to maintain this species in captivity and this is one of the most preferred cage birds in Cuba and was reported as a cage bird in the island by Gundlach (1876). There is a popular tradition of "song fights", in which captive males defend a territory with long and elaborate songs. In captivity, some individuals can modify their singing pattern, being appreciated as "good quality" birds. There is not current estimates about the population impact of the taking of live males across Cuba (see Conservation).

Additional audio recordings of vocalizations of Cuban Bullfinch can be heard at the Macaulay Library and at xeno-canto.

Nonvocal Sounds

None known.

Detailed Description (appearance)

Cuban Bullfinch (Melopyrrha nigra) is a small bird of 14-15 cm (5.5-5.75’’) average length, with a strikingly thick and curved bill. The species is sexually dimorphic, but the juvenile and immature males are similar to female. Some individuals of both sexes have small white feathers in the eyebrow and/or scattered in the body. The following description refers to nominate Melopyrrha nigra nigra; see also Geographic Variation:

Adult male: Entirely shiny black, with a conspicuous wide bright white patch on the wings (composed of white edgings to the greater primary coverts and to the outer webs of the outer primaries, and white inner webs of the secondaries and primaries). Underwing all white.

Adult female: Dull grayish black to glossy black, with a smaller white wing patch.

Immature: Resembles the adult female in overall appearance, but with greenish tipped feathers. Immature male can be distinguished by having on average more glossy black head and flight feathers.

Bare Parts

In Melopyrrha n. nigra

Iris: dark brown

Bill: black

Tarsi and toes: black


Total length: 12.3 cm (Orbigny 1839), 13.8-15.0 cm (Gundlach 1876), 14 cm (Garrido and Kirckonnell 2011), 14.6 cm (Cory 1886) 14-15 cm (Raffaelle 1998)

Linear measurements (Ayón, unpublished data from museum specimens):

male (n = 79)

wing length: mean 63.95 mm (range 54.00 - 74.00 mm)

tail length: mean 55.56 mm (range 43.00 - 67.00 mm)

bill length (exposed culmen): mean 10.53 mm (range 8.90 - 12.90 mm)

female (n = 42)

wing length: mean 62.66 mm (range 51.00 - 67.00 mm)

tail length: mean 53.71 mm (range 40.00 – 65.00 mm) 

bill length (exposed culmen): mean 9.75 mm (range 8.50 - 11.40 mm)

Linear measurements (Yasit Segovia unpublished data from live specimens measured, banded and release at the Johann Christoph Gundlach Cuban Bird Banding Centre (CBBC) located at the Siboney-Jutici Ecological Reserve and managed by the Eastern Centre of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (BIOECO): 


wing length: mean 63.66 mm (range 59.0 - 67.0 mm, n =46)

tail length: mean 55.98 mm (range 49.0 - 61.0 mm, n = 43)

bill length (exposed culmen): mean 11.13 mm (range 10.18 - 13.07 mm, n = 44)

tarsus length: mean 17.32 mm (range 11.44 - 19.20 mm, n = 25)


wing length: mean 61.24 mm (range 57.00 - 64.50 mm, n = 41)

tail length: mean 52.92 mm (range 48.50 - 60.0 mm, n = 41)

bill length (exposed culmen): mean 10.81 mm (range 9.69 - 12.56 mm, n = 38)

tarsus length: mean 17.16 mm (range 15.10 - 18.74 mm, n = 31)


male, mean 14.42 ± 0.73 g (range 13.0-16.13 g, n = 43); 

female, mean 13.90 ± 1.25 g (range 12.0-19.79 g, n = 41)


No information available.

Geographic Variation

Two subspecies currently are recognized:


Inhabits the island of Cuba, Island of Youth (formerly known as Pines), several keys in Sabana-Camagüey Archipelago at north and Cayo Cantiles and Cayo Rosario in Los Canarreos Archipelago at the south. See Detailed Description.









Occurs only on Grand Cayman Island. Hartert (1896) noticed that the population found on Grand Cayman is larger and has much less of the metallic bluish green steel-gloss; morphological variations are also evident in the plumage of females, which are a paler olive-gray. He described this population as a separate species, Melopyrrha taylori. Young birds of both sexes are ashy brown, lack the white on the wing, and the bill is pale instead of black (Raffaele et al. 1998, 2003).


Traditionally Melopyrrha nigra was classified in a family of finches, such as Fringillidae (Ridgway 1901) or Emberizidae (Paynter 1970). Melopyrrha nigra is the sole living specie in this genus and belongs to the Family Emberizidae in the Order Passeriformes (NACC 2012). The type specimen was named Loxia nigra by Linnaeus (Ridgway 1901).

Recently, phylogenetic analysis of DNA sequence data, from mitochondrial DNA, suggests instead that Melopyrrha is one of many genera of "finches" that belongs to the thraupid radiation ("tanagers", Thraupidae) (Burns et al. 2002, 2003). 

Currently there are five species of bullfinch in the Caribbean, classified in two genera: Melopyrrha nigra and the four species of Loxigilla: Loxigilla portoricensis (Puerto Rican Bullfinch), Loxigilla violacea (Greater Antillean Bullfinch), Loxigilla noctis (Lesser Antillean Bullfinch), and Loxigilla barbadensis (Barbados Bullfinch). There is no phylogenetic study that comprehensively treats all species of bullfinch. Burns et al. (2002) included most species (lacking only L. barbadensis), however, in a phylogenetic analysis of mitochondrial DNA sequence data (from cytochrome b). Burns et al. (2002) found that L. portoricensis and L. violacea belong to a clade that includes Melopyrrha nigra. On the other hand, Loxigilla noctis apparently is not congeneric with other Loxigilla; instead, noctis belongs to a clade that includes Tiaris bicolor (Black-faced Grassquit) and Melanospiza richardsoni (St. Lucia Black Finch). All of these species, however, are embedded within a radiation of small-bodied nine-primaried oscines that share a similar domed nest architecture. Many of these taxa are Caribbean, although this radiation also includes the Darwin's finches; another member of this larger radiation is Coereba flaveola (Bananaquit).

Recommended Citation

Ayón Güemes, Xochitl, Edwin Ruiz Rojas, and Eduardo E. Iñigo-Elias. 2013. Cuban Bullfinch (Melopyrrha nigra), Neotropical Birds Online (T. S. Schulenberg, Editor). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; retrieved from Neotropical Birds Online: