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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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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
7.1–7.5 in
18–19 cm
Wingspan
12.6 in
32 cm
Weight
1.2–1.7 oz
35–49 g
Relative Size
Larger and bulkier than a House Finch; more compact and slimmer than an American Robin.
Other Names
  • Cardinal à tête noire (French)
  • Tigrillo, Frío (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Despite his showy plumage, the male Black-headed Grosbeak shares about equally with the female in incubating eggs and feeding young.
  • The male Black-headed Grosbeak does not get its adult breeding plumage until it is two years old. First-year males can vary from looking like a female to looking nearly like an adult male. Only yearling males that most closely resemble adult males are able to defend a territory and attempt to breed.
  • The Black-headed Grosbeak's scientific names are both well-suited. Its species name, melanocephalus, means "black-headed.” And its genus name, Pheucticus, refers either to the Greek pheuticus for "shy" or phycticus meaning "painted with cosmetics," fitting for a showy bird that forages in dense foliage.
  • In central Mexico, where monarch butterflies and Black-headed Grosbeaks both spend the winter, the grosbeaks are one of the butterflies' few predators. Toxins in the monarch make them poisonous to most birds, but Black-headed Grosbeaks and a few others can eat them. They feed on monarchs in roughly 8-day cycles, apparently to give themselves time to eliminate the toxins.
  • Both male and female Black-headed Grosbeaks are loud songsters. The female's song is generally a simplified version of the male song. Occasionally, the female sings a full "male" song, possibly to deceive its mate about the presence of intruders and get him to spend more time at the nest.
  • The oldest known Black-headed Grosbeak was 11 years, 11 months old.

Habitat


Forest

Black-headed Grosbeaks breed in complex habitats with a diversity of plants and ready access to water. They avoid monotonous stretches of unbroken dry chaparral, desert, grassland, or dense coniferous forests, but inhabit edges where those habitats are disturbed or meet others. A combination of large trees and rich understory seems ideal, whether found in groves of cottonwood or aspen on floodplains or stream margins, in broken pine forests or deciduous canyons and valleys, or in gardens, orchards, and suburban developments. Grosbeaks choose winter habitats in subtropical and tropical lowlands in Mexico with similar features. During migration they tend to seek out shrubs and trees rich in berries.

Food


Insects

Black-headed Grosbeaks' massive bills make them well equipped for cracking seeds, but those beaks are just as useful for snatching and crushing hard-bodied insects or snails. Insects (especially beetles), spiders, and other animals make up about 60% of their breeding-season food. Fruits and seeds make up most of the rest. Berries are a favored food during migration. Among wild fruit, juneberries, poison oak, and elderberries make common meals. Other regular foods include grains like oats and wheat, and weed seeds such as dock, pigweed, chickweed, and bur clover. They also feed on cultivated orchard fruit like figs, mulberries, cherries, apricots, plums, blackberries, and crabapples. In spring and summer, they feed at sunflower seed feeders and at nectar feeders set out for orioles. Where their range overlaps with wintering monarch butterflies, grosbeaks eat large numbers of these insects. Black-headed Grosbeaks don’t seem to suffer from the toxins concentrated in the monarchs’ bodies, which render them inedible to most birds.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–5 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
0.9–1.1 in
2.3–2.7 cm
Egg Width
0.7–0.7 in
1.7–1.9 cm
Incubation Period
12–14 days
Nestling Period
10–14 days
Egg Description
Pale to greenish blue with brown or reddish brown spotting.
Condition at Hatching
Helpless, nearly naked, with eyes closed; sparse grayish white down on apricot skin.
Nest Description

The female builds a bulky, loosely constructed nest that’s about 5–7 inches across and 2–4 inches deep. She uses slim twigs, stems, rootlets, and pine needles with no mud or cementing. She lines the 3–4 inch wide inner cup with finer stems, rootlets, hair, string, and green material, making a 1–2 inch deep hollow. It usually takes her 3 to 4 days to build the nest, gathering most of the material in the first days and intensifying assembly later on. The loose construction (sometimes so loose that the eggs can be seen through the bottom) may help provide ventilation to keep nest and eggs cool.

Nest Placement

Tree

Nests are typically placed in the outer branches of a small deciduous tree or bush near a stream, up to about 25 feet high. They are generally well concealed by leaves and branches. Spots may be chosen to make nest cooling easy.

Behavior


Foliage Gleaner

Black-headed Grosbeaks glean most of their food in the treetops and understory, less frequently lunging at prey, and occasionally snatching flying prey from the air. They hop on branches or at feeders, cracking seeds and hard-bodied insects with their heavy bills. After spring migration, tight-knit pairs form quickly. Males court females with vigorous singing and striking displays called "nuptial flights" lasting 8 to 10 seconds: the male flutters up from a perch, singing and spreading his wings and tail to reveal the bold white-on-black patterns, rising several feet before settling back on the same perch. Singing helps with territorial defense, although both males and females will attack other grosbeaks that intrude. Aerial grappling attacks can be ferocious. They tend to tolerate species such as warblers and Bushtits that come near the nest, but they attack predators including Western Scrub-Jays and Steller’s Jays. Both males and females sing on the nest, and they share the chick-rearing duties of sitting on the eggs and feeding the young about equally. Black-headed Grosbeaks may form loose flocks during fall migration and winter.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Black-headed Grosbeak populations are stable or increasing throughout their range, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey conducted between 1966 and 2010. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 14 million, with 75 percent breeding in the United States, 4 percent in Canada, and 100 percent spending some part of the year in Mexico. They rate a 9 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List. While urbanization has destroyed some prime habitats, the grosbeaks' adaptability has served them well. They aren't particularly fussy about breeding habitat or nest materials, nesting in many species of trees and shrubs. Nor are they fussy eaters, mixing a wide variety of animal and plant foods. They inhabit disturbed landscapes like irrigated field edges, second-growth forests, orchards, and suburban greenbelts, though they keep their distance from intensive human activity. In some areas, Scrub and Steller's jays are significant nest predators, but grosbeaks seem relatively resistant to brood parasitism by the Brown-headed Cowbirds that trouble other birds in their range.

Credits

Range Map Help

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Migration

Medium to long-distance migrant (resident in parts of Mexico). Individuals from across western North America spend winters spread across central Mexico. Males tend to head south before females and young, and they return earlier in spring.

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.

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