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Another one to add to the grosbeak family.

Updated on August 14, 2015

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For the meanings of bird parts which you do not understand in this Hub, please see my bird glossary.

If what you want is not in there, please let me know so that I can add it in the glossary.


The family tree:

Let me start by telling you that they are in the ‘Family Emberizidae’. This is ‘Subfamily Cardinalinae’, or - ‘Cardinals, Grosbeaks and Allies’.

There are 39 species in this family, chiefly in tropical America. Only ten of those species appear to be in North America. The birds in this family basically have bright colors and conical bills which they use to crush seeds. Instead of migrating, some of these birds stay all year and are very territorial but not all of them do. There are some which go to the tropics as soon as the season for breeding is over.

The only ones in this group which I will be describing are the grosbeaks. The five here will be Black-headed Grosbeak, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak, the Yellow Grosbeak, the Blue Grosbeak, and the Crimson-collared Grosbeak. (The other two: the Pine Grosbeak and the Evening Grosbeak are with the finch family.)

Black-headed Grosbeak (Male, female & young)

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Male grosbeak in Arroyo Grande, San Luis Obispo Co., CA, USA. May 5 Pheucticus melanocephalus  Black-headed Grosbeak adult femaleAlthough the bird was missing late last night and first thing this morning, it reappeared. It again spent most of the day on the fencing, but with a few excursions to the ground and some wing-flapping. Perhaps this one is a survivor after all.
Male grosbeak in Arroyo Grande, San Luis Obispo Co., CA, USA. May 5
Male grosbeak in Arroyo Grande, San Luis Obispo Co., CA, USA. May 5 | Source
Pheucticus melanocephalus  Black-headed Grosbeak adult female
Pheucticus melanocephalus Black-headed Grosbeak adult female | Source
Although the bird was missing late last night and first thing this morning, it reappeared. It again spent most of the day on the fencing, but with a few excursions to the ground and some wing-flapping. Perhaps this one is a survivor after all.
Although the bird was missing late last night and first thing this morning, it reappeared. It again spent most of the day on the fencing, but with a few excursions to the ground and some wing-flapping. Perhaps this one is a survivor after all. | Source

The Black-headed Grosbeak:

If you are wondering what they look like:

These birds are from about 7” to 7.5” (18 - 19 cm) in their length from head to the tip of their tail. Their wings - from end to end - reach about 12.5” (32 cm). A grown adult usually weighs about 1 ounce to between 1.5 and 1.75 ounces (35 – 49 g).

You could place them in an range slightly larger than a House Finch, but slightly smaller than the American Robin.

The male has a black head, (you might be thinking: of course, that is its name. Well some birds have names which are not related to their looks.) The breast is a sort of orange-brown color and its belly is a yellow while the bill has a pinkish tint to it. When you look at the back, it has a brownish tint and some black streaking. The wings are black but they do have white wing bars/patches, and the tail has the same colors.

The female is not like the male. The female has white eyebrows, (If birds used make-up then this one would probably use white eye-shadow. lol) The underparts of the female area are a pale buff, plus the breast is streaked, very finely.

Immature males: Like the female, the immature males are brown on top and have a warm orange or buff on their breast. Occasionally there are some which have streaks on the side of their breast. At that age they have grayish bills. If you get to see them when they are flying, then you will see a bright yellow under their wings.

Range map:

This image shows the Black-headed Grosbeak range.
This image shows the Black-headed Grosbeak range. | Source

Did you know that they had a wide range AND habitat?

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The habitat and the range of the Black-headed Grosbeak:

Habitat –

They breed in various different habitats with a wide assortment of plants and water which are easily accessible.

They like to live in woodlands which are moist and near open fields. Usually with shrubs and trees in them which are rich in berries. They also like orchards but normally the orchards have to be old, plus overgrown.

They keep clear of stretches which are all the same. They can be unbroken chaparrals, deserts, grasslands, or dense coniferous forests. Instead, they take up residence right at the borders which have habitats kind of ‘out of order’ or else they meet others. When there are large trees together with rich growth below, the trees seem to be the perfect thing. Whether they are found in a cluster of cottonwood or aspen on floodplains or the edge of a stream, fragments of forests or short-term canyons or valleys, even gardens, orchards and suburban progress.

Grosbeaks decide on their winter habitats subtropical and tropical bogs and valleys in Mexico with similar features. They prefer to choose somewhere which has shrubs and trees that will be rich in berries while they are in migration.

Range –

You can find this grosbeak breeding from southwestern Canada. Then it goes south & east to western North Dakota and Nebraska, and then south to the mountains of Mexico. The Grosbeaks spend their winters in Mexico.

Occasionally they appear at feeders in the east.

Eggs -

The grosbeak only has one brood per breeding season – or once every year. Within this brood it lays a clutch of between two to five eggs. When you measure them, they are 0.9” to 1.1” (2.3 to 2.7 cm) in length and 0.7” to 0.7” (1.7 to 1.9 cm). The eggs are kept warm in the nest for 12 to 14 days before they begin to hatch. Once they are all hatched, the new birds usually stay in the nest for between 10 to 14 days before they leave. The eggs vary in color because they are ‘pale to greenish’ blue and they have either plain brown, or reddish brown, spotting on top of the blue. The young birds are helpless and need to be kept warm for a while since they are altricial, or nearly naked, and their eyes are closed. Until they grow feathers, they have sparse, grayish white ‘down’ on their apricot skin.


Four fledglings and adults (not too clear)

Black-headed Grosbeak on feeder

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Black-headed grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus) on feeder. At 7000 ft, eastern side of Sierra Nevada, California.Seen at the backyard bird feeders 4-30-2009. Checking out the sunflowers. Pheucticus melanocephalus male Birds of Vancouver
Black-headed grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus) on feeder. At 7000 ft, eastern side of Sierra Nevada, California.
Black-headed grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus) on feeder. At 7000 ft, eastern side of Sierra Nevada, California. | Source
Seen at the backyard bird feeders 4-30-2009. Checking out the sunflowers.
Seen at the backyard bird feeders 4-30-2009. Checking out the sunflowers. | Source
Pheucticus melanocephalus male Birds of Vancouver
Pheucticus melanocephalus male Birds of Vancouver | Source

Nesting and Feeding:

Nesting –

A nest which is freely constructed and massive is built by the female. The size is about 5” to 7” across, by 2” to 4” deep. Her supplies to build it are thin twigs, rootlets, pine needles and stems, and they are held together without mud or cementing! To line the inner cup, she uses hair stems, string and green material and finer rootlets. It started at 3” to 4” wide but after she is done lining the cup it makes a 1” to 2” hollow inner basin. The time which she spends on building the nest and lining it is 3 to 4 days, this includes gathering the material and then concentrating on the building. Both the eggs and the nest stay cool because fresh air is allowed to flow through due to the unconstrained construction of the nest (occasionally it is possible to see the eggs through the bottom).

When a small deciduous bush or a tree – reaching about 25’ to 35' in height - is found close to a stream, it is common to place a nest in the branches of one. The leaves and branches

shroud them very well from most predators. Cooling the nest is simple when the correct areas are selected.

Feeding –

The Black-headed Grosbeaks have grand bills so that when it comes to cracking the many seeds which they eat, they come well-prepared. The beaks also happen to be beneficial for when these birds eat snails or insects which have hard bodies. During breeding-season, about 60 percent of

their food comes from insects – a good deal of which is beetles – spiders and other animals. Then they eat fruits and seeds to make up the rest – mostly. When they are in migration, the food that is most popular is berries.

When making common meals, they have elderberries, poison oak and Juneberries for some of the wild-fruit. They also have daily foods such as grains: oats and wheat; weed seeds: dock, pig weed, chickweed, and bur clover. Other fruit which they feed on comes from refined orchards: figs, mulberries, apricots, blackberries, cherries, plums and crab apples.

They feed at sunflower seed feeders when it is spring and summer, and those feeders where orioles get their sweet drinks. In certain areas the range of grosbeaks and the range of monarch butterflies which are wintering overlap, when this happens the grosbeaks eat a big number of the insects. Even though most birds are unable to eat monarchs due to the rich toxins in their bodies, but the Black-headed Grosbeaks do not seem to be affected from this.

Black-headed Grosbeak singing

How grosbeaks sound, both the song and the call:

The song –

The Black-headed Grosbeak has a song which sounds similar to the American Robin’s song but with a few variations. The grosbeak whistles its song in a rich and warbling sound with passages which rise and fall. It is also more fluent, faster, mellow, more varied and less rough in its ‘choice of words’. All of this together makes it longer than the robin’s song. Occasionally it is in the same class as a “totaled” or a “symphonic” A. Robin. The male, and the female, each sing but have distinct songs.

The female song is clear and understandable but it is very brief, though she sings less often than the male. When she is singing from the nest she is brooding, or incubating, the eggs and the sounds are like a very soft whisper.

The calls –

The classic call made by the Black-headed Grosbeak is a very crisp and clear ‘spik’ expressed again and again to keep in touch with mates while hunting for grub.

They express a ‘wheet’ which rises in pitch when they take to the air.

A list of notes which is said in a hurry over and over again is their distress call. They cast these notes out as a reaction to danger which is about to happen either to themselves or their chicks. Other times which they use the distress call can be in wild arguments with other grosbeaks.

Santuario de la mariposa monarca en Edomex Monarch butterfies wintering
Santuario de la mariposa monarca en Edomex Monarch butterfies wintering | Source

Conservation facts and interesting facts:

Conservation –

In the long run, Black-headed Grosbeaks have well established societies, but in California and other areas, some unmentioned lowering in their numbers has appeared. Grosbeaks have been able to change well even though cities, etc., are being built and destroying mature habitats in the process. They nest in quite a variety of shrubs and trees and it is because of this that they are not too hard to please about choosing breeding habitat and nesting materials. Also, they are not picky eaters since they mix a wide selection of plant and animal foods. They take up residence in stirred up landscapes: these include edges of irrigated fields, groves on fruit farms, forests which reproduce, and rural country - but they do stay away from the very active life of individuals. Grosbeaks seem somewhat invulnerable from the Brown-headed Cowbird’s brood parasitism but in some areas of their range there are other predators such as the Scrub and Stellar’s Jays, who are both important to watch out for.

Interesting facts -

  • Even though the male Black-headed Grosbeak has brighter plumage than the female, they both feed the young and take care of the eggs fifty-fifty.


  • Before it is 2 years old, the adult male grosbeak will not see any of its breeding feathers. Males which are in their first year, may look like a female or almost like an adult male. The only males which are able to defend a territory and try to give birth, are yearling males the that almost look like adult males.


  • The Black-headed Grosbeak, its scientific name is Pheucticus melanocephalus - when broken down the first one is the 'genus' name, and the second is its 'species' name. Both names are appropriate for this bird because the genus name may refer to either the Greek, pheuticus, for “shy” or phyticus meaning “painted with cosmetics”, either is fitting for a showy bird that forages for dense foliage.


  • Black-headed Grosbeaks and monarch butterflies each spend their winters in central Mexico. It is during this time which the grosbeaks are one of the butterflies infrequent hunters. Poisons in the monarch make them harmful - or even fatal - to most birds, but Black-headed Grosbeaks and a few others are able to eat them. Grosbeaks can eat them, but only in periods of about 8-days. Supposedly it is within this time that they are able to dispose of the toxins.


  • When you hear either the male or the female sing, they are vociferous. What the female sings is basically a streamlined form of what the male sings. Every now and then you will hear the female sing an entire form of the male song. This is perhaps in wanting him to spend more time at the nest by misleading him about the presence of intruders.


  • There was a Black-headed Grosbeak which was 11 years 11 months old. It was recorded as the oldest known one.


  • Cardinal `a tete noire is a French name for this grosbeak; and Tigrillo, Frio is a Spanish name.

Have you seen any of these grosbeaks?

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The 3 remaining grosbeaks in this series:

Name:
Color:
Blue Grosbeak
Mostly blue, w/different color wings
Yellow Grosbeak
Mostly yellow, w/B&W tail & wings
Crimson-collared Grosbeak
Mostly black w/crimson neck & breast

© 2014 The Examiner-1

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    • profile image

      Melia 2 years ago

      IJWTS wow! Why can't I think of thgins like that?

    • The Examiner-1 profile image
      Author

      The Examiner-1 3 years ago

      Really? That is wonderful Debra, I take that she feeds them.

      Kevin

    • The Examiner-1 profile image
      Author

      The Examiner-1 3 years ago

      Perhaps I have forgotten, but I believe that you are the first to say it is pretty Grosbeak, moonlake. You are correct though. :-)

      I am pleased that you enjoyed it. I thank you for your shares and votes.

      Kevin - Have a nice day!

    • Lady Guinevere profile image

      Debra Allen 3 years ago from West By God

      My mom has a few of these rose breasted grosbeaks in her yard in Western Maryland.

    • moonlake profile image

      moonlake 3 years ago from America

      What a pretty Grosbeak. We get Pine, Evening and Rose-breasted. Enjoyed your hub. Voted up and Google+.

    • The Examiner-1 profile image
      Author

      The Examiner-1 3 years ago

      Thank you, I was just checking.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Yes, South Padre Island in TX.

    • The Examiner-1 profile image
      Author

      The Examiner-1 3 years ago

      Is that the South Padre Island in Texas? I wish you good luck - at least the weather will be better. I am glad that you liked it Deb. There are a few more coming to this series, then you can pick your favorite grosbeak.

      Kevin

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Perhaps I will get lucky this spring when I visit South Padre Island! This was a great piece, Kevin.

    • The Examiner-1 profile image
      Author

      The Examiner-1 3 years ago

      Thank you. I am writing about another one that you may like too.

      Kevin

    • Writer Fox profile image

      Writer Fox 3 years ago from the wadi near the little river

      This is an amazing article about the Grosbeak. I've never heard of this bird before but they are beautiful. Enjoyed and voted up.

    • The Examiner-1 profile image
      Author

      The Examiner-1 3 years ago

      Thank you Eiddwen. Yes. There is a lot to learn about nature - and many other things in this world. I thank you very much for the compliment. I wish you a great day also.

      Kevin

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 3 years ago from Wales

      Such a wonderful hub Kevin ;no matter how much knowledge we have on nature there is always so much more to learn and you are a great teacher. Voted up as always and wishing you a great day.

      Eddy.

    • The Examiner-1 profile image
      Author

      The Examiner-1 3 years ago

      Hi Pearl!

      Perhaps the song reminded you of the robin's song since their songs sound so much the same. There are still more to come.

      Thank you for your good words, I was glad to share. :)

      Kevin

    • grandmapearl profile image

      Connie Smith 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      I loved the song of the Black-Headed Grosbeak, it reminded me of spring and the return of my Robins! I would love to see one of these gorgeous birds someday. Lots of good info; thanks for sharing ;) Pearl