A colorful bird and relatively common throughout its widespread range across western North America, the black-headed grosbeak is an eager visitor to different bird feeders and can be an easy species for birders to spot.
- Bill: Dark on males and paler on females, short with a thick conical shape
- Size: 8 inches long with 12.5-inch wingspan, thick body, large head
- Colors: Black, dark orange, buff, white, brown, bright yellow
- Markings: Dimorphic species. Males have a black head with an orange neck, throat, underparts and rump. The black back has orange streaks and brown edging on the feathers. Wings are black with two blotchy white wing bars and a white patch at the base of the primary feathers. The tail is black above and white below. Flanks may show fine black streaks. Females are more camouflaged with dusky brown head and upperparts that show darker brown streaking. The head is marked with a thick white eyebrow and a white malar stripe. The throat and chest are buff-orange, and the abdomen is yellow-white. The undertail coverts are white, and the flanks may show a greater degree of streaking than on males. Wings are brown with two white wing bars. Both genders show a bright yellow color under the wings, and a small amount of that color may show on the lower shoulder when the wings are folded. Juvenile birds resemble females but show more flank streaking.
Seeds, insects, berries, fruit, butterflies (See: Omnivorous)
Habitat and Migration:
These neotropical migrants prefer woodland habitat with shrubby, dense cover. They are most commonly found in mixed deciduous and coniferous forests, particularly with an abundance of pine or oak trees, but they are adaptable and can adjust to a wide range of habitats. They are often seen in urban and suburban areas, so long as there is sufficient variety in trees and shrubs as well as adequate water.
Black-headed grosbeaks can be found year-round in central Mexico, but in summer their breeding range extends throughout the western United States as far east as eastern regions of Nebraska and Kansas, and as far north as southern British Columbia. They are noticeably absent from the driest, most barren regions of the southwest, including the Mojave Desert. In winter, the non-breeding range also covers the southern half of the Baja Peninsula and both coasts of Mexico. Vagrant sightings are regularly noted far outside the typical range, including records in Maine, Alaska and Florida.
These birds have a rich, warbling song composed of a musical progression of chirp notes. The typical call is a very high pitched "chip" note, and while brooding or incubating eggs, very soft whisper-like songs have been noted.
These birds can be tame in the backyard but are aggressive toward other birds, particularly jays and grosbeaks, that intrude on their territory. During the breeding season they are most often found in pairs or singly, but in winter they will form larger flocks, often congregating with house finches and sparrows. Black-headed grosbeaks forage at various heights in trees and even on the ground, and their undulating flight pattern is easy to note when the birds take wing.
The female of a mated pair of black-headed grosbeaks will build a loose cup-shaped nest of twigs, sticks, weeds, pine needles and rootlets lined with finer materials. The nest is positioned from 3-30 feet above the ground.
Eggs are oval-shaped with a light greenish or bluish color, marked with sparse red-brown dots. Only one brood is laid per year, and it will contain 2-5 eggs. Both parents incubate the eggs for 12-14 days, and after the altricial young hatch, both parents continue to feed and care for the young birds for an additional 11-12 days.
These birds will occasionally play foster parent to a brown-headed cowbird egg, but not with such great regularity that it poses a significant threat to their breeding success. Where their range overlaps with the rose-breasted grosbeak, the two species will hybridize, and the resulting birds can resemble either parent species or show mixed characteristics.
Attracting Black-Headed Grosbeaks:
These birds readily come to bird feeders where black oil sunflower seed or mixed birdseed is offered. Landscaping that includes a dense thicket area and a wider variety of plants will be more attractive to black-headed grosbeaks, especially if blackberry bushes or crabapple trees are included. They will also visit bird baths.
These passerines are not threatened or endangered, though some local black-headed grosbeak populations do show fluctuations. The biggest threat to these birds is the loss of their preferred forest habitat to logging, development and fires.