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Black-headed Grosbeak

Pheucticus melanocephalus ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: CARDINALIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

In western North America, the sweet song of the Black-headed Grosbeak caroling down from the treetops sounds like a tipsy robin welcoming spring. The flashy black, white, and cinnamon males and the less flamboyant females sing from perches in suburbs, desert thickets, and mountain forests. At feeders they effortlessly shuck sunflower seeds with their heavy bills. The showy male puts in equal time on the domestic front: both sexes sit on the eggs, feed the young, and feistily defend their nesting territory.

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Keys to identification Help

Finchlike
Finchlike
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Black-headed Grosbeaks are hefty songbirds with very large bills that are conical and thick at the base. They have large heads and short, thick necks. A short tail imparts a compact, chunky look.

  • Color Pattern

    Breeding males are rich orange-cinnamon with a black head and black-and-white wings. Females and immature males are brown above with warm orange or buff on the breast, and some have streaks on the sides of the breast. All have grayish bills. In flight, they flash bright yellow under the wings.

  • Behavior

    Often hidden as they hop about in dense foliage gleaning insects and seeds, Black-headed Grosbeaks feed readily on sunflower seeds at feeders. Males sing in a rich, whistled lilt from treetops in spring and summer. The short, squeaky chip note is distinctive and can be a good way to find these birds.

  • Habitat

    Look for Black-headed Grosbeaks in mixed woodlands and edges from mountain forests to thickets along desert streams to backyards and gardens. Ideal habitat includes some large trees and a diverse understory.

Range Map Help

Black-headed Grosbeak Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Breeding adult male

    Black-headed Grosbeak

    Breeding adult male
    • Stocky songbird with massive gray bill
    • Dull orange underparts and collar
    • Black face and tail
    • Streaked back, and white patches on wings
    • © Mike Wisnicki, Grand Forks, British Columbia, Canada, May 2010
  • Breeding adult male

    Black-headed Grosbeak

    Breeding adult male
    • Stocky songbird with massive gray bill
    • Black wings with white patches
    • Dull orange collar and underparts
    • © Keith Alderman, Poudre Canyon, Fort Collins, Colorado, June 2010
  • Adult female

    Black-headed Grosbeak

    Adult female
    • Stocky songbird, with thick, dark bill
    • White eyebrow and chin stripe
    • Dull orange underparts with thin streaks on flanks
    • Brown patterned back and wings with white wing-bars
    • © Mike Wisnicki, Kootenay Boundary, British Columbia, Canada, July 2010
  • Adult female

    Black-headed Grosbeak

    Adult female
    • Stocky songbird with thick, gray bill
    • White eyebrow and chin stripe
    • Pale orange underparts with thin streaks on flanks
    • Brown patterned wings with white wing-bars
    • © Ganesh Jayaraman, Los Altos, California, January 2000
  • Breeding adult male

    Black-headed Grosbeak

    Breeding adult male
    • Stocky, heavy-bodied songbird
    • Massive, conical silver-gray bill
    • Black wings with white patches
    • Burnt orange breast, black on face and crown
    • © Ganesh Jayaraman, Los Altos, California, June 2010

Similar Species

  • Adult female

    Purple Finch

    Adult female
    • Smaller than Black-headed Grosbeak with smaller, peaked head
    • Heavy brown streaking on white underparts
    • Notched tail
    • Lacks white on wings
    • © Dawn Vornholt, Roswell, Georgia, December 2010
  • Adult female

    Rose-breasted Grosbeak

    Adult female
    • Bill entirely pale
    • Breast more heavily streaked than Black-headed Grosbeak
    • Buffy wash on breast less obvious than on Black-headed Grosbeak
    • © Mark G. Mittlestat, Wolverine, Michigan, May 2009
  • Adult female

    Rose-breasted Grosbeak

    Adult female
    • Similar to female Black-headed Grosbeak but with entirely pale bill
    • Breast more densely streaked than Black-headed Grosbeak
    • Buffy wash on breast very faint or missing entirely
    • © Joel DeYoung, Holland, Michigan, May 2011
  • Breeding adult male

    Rose-breasted Grosbeak

    Breeding adult male
    • Similar in shape to male Black-headed Grosbeak but rosy patch on breast distinctive
    • White belly
    • Bill entirely pale
    • Solid black head
    • © Mary Fran, Sandy Springs, Georgia, May 2009
  • Breeding adult male

    Baltimore Oriole

    Breeding adult male
    • More slender-bodied and elongated than Black-headed Grosbeak
    • Bill more slender and sharply-pointed
    • Orange underparts richer and brighter than in Black-headed Grosbeak
    • © quietriver250, Iowa, May 2008

Similar Species

Black-headed Grosbeaks and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are closely related, and although males are easy to tell apart, the females and immatures can be difficult. Fortunately their ranges overlap only in a narrow band in the center of the continent. Female Rose-breasted Grosbeaks tend to have more streaking on the whitish breast, whereas female Black-headed have an orange-buffy breast without streaking in the center. Hybrids do occur rarely, particularly in Colorado. Female Blue Grosbeaks lack the bold stripes on the head. Spotted Towhees have a considerably smaller bill and white on the breast; they tend to forage on or low to the ground. Female Red-winged Blackbirds have longer, more slender and pointed bills and bold streaking over the entire breast. Male Bullock’s Orioles are more slender birds with thinner bills, and they are brighter orange. Females of three similar finches (House Finch, Cassin’s Finch, Purple Finch) have considerably smaller bills, more uniform brown streaking, less white in the wings, and lack the female Black-headed Grosbeak’s buffy breast.

Backyard Tips

Attract Black-headed Grosbeaks by setting out sunflower seed feeders, and don't be surprised to find them at nectar feeders set out for orioles. They'll even nest in backyards and gardens where enough cover is available and water is nearby.

Find This Bird

Listen for the Black-headed Grosbeak's rich, lilting song in the treetops and its abrupt spik call as it gleans in dense foliage from spring through summer. It may be easiest to spot at sunflower seed feeders, but you may catch a glimpse of it in almost any diverse habitat, especially those with a few large trees and complex understory.