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Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Pheucticus ludovicianus ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: CARDINALIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Bursting with black, white, and rose-red, male Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are like an exclamation mark at your bird feeder or in your binoculars. Females and immatures are streaked brown and white with a bold face pattern and enormous bill. Look for these birds in forest edges and woodlands. Listen, too, for their distinctive voices. They sound like American Robins, but listen for an extra sweetness, as if the bird had operatic training; they also make a sharp chink like the squeak of a sneaker.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
7.1–8.3 in
18–21 cm
Wingspan
11.4–13 in
29–33 cm
Weight
1.4–1.7 oz
39–49 g
Relative Size
Smaller than an American Robin; larger than a House Finch.
Other Names
  • Cardinal à poitrine rose (French)
  • Picogrueso pechirrosado (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • In parts of the Great Plains, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak hybridizes with its close relative, the Black-headed Grosbeak. Hybrids can look like either parent species or be intermediate in pattern, with various combinations of pink, orange, and black. The two grosbeak species are most likely to hybridize in areas where both species are scarce.
  • Researchers used mounted specimens of male Rose-breasted Grosbeaks to explore aggressive behavior. Live male birds attacked the white rump and flanks of the models, suggesting that the white markings are more important than the red chest in stimulating aggression.
  • Rose-breasted Grosbeaks build such flimsy nests that eggs are often visible from below through the nest bottom.
  • The male Rose-breasted Grosbeak takes a turn incubating the eggs for several hours during the day, while the female incubates the rest of the day and all night long. Both sexes sing quietly to each other when they exchange places. The male sometimes sings his normal song at full volume from inside the nest.
  • This bird’s sweet, robin-like song has inspired many a bird watcher to pay tribute to it. A couple of early twentieth-century naturalists said it is “so entrancingly beautiful that words cannot describe it,” and “it has been compared with the finest efforts of the robin and… the Scarlet Tanager, but it is far superior to either.” Present-day bird watchers have variously suggested it sings like a robin that has had opera training, is drunk, refined, in a hurry, or unusually happy.
  • Two males share the record for the oldest Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Both birds were at least 12 years, 11 months old when captured and released—one by a Vermont bird bander in 1984, and the other by a Maryland bird bander in 1987.

Habitat


Forest

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks breed in moist deciduous forests, deciduous-coniferous forests, thickets, and semiopen habitats across the northeastern United States, ranging into southeastern and central Canada. They gravitate toward second-growth woods, suburban areas, parks, gardens, and orchards, as well as shrubby forest edges next to streams, ponds, marshes, roads, or pastures. During migration, grosbeaks stop in a wide variety of habitats including primary and secondary forest, wet and dry forest, shrub thickets, pine woods, shrubby dune ridges, scrub, urban areas, and wetlands. They spend the winter in forests and semiopen habitats in Central and South America, often in middle elevations and highlands (up to about 11,000 feet in Colombia).

Food


Insects

During the breeding season Rose-breasted Grosbeaks eat a lot of insects, as well as wild fruit and seeds. They mostly feed on berries during fall migration, and on their wintering grounds they have a varied diet of invertebrates and plant material. Grosbeaks usually glean their food from dense foliage and branches. They also snag food while hovering, and sometimes fly out to hawk for insects in midair. The animal portion of their diet includes beetles, bees, ants, sawflies, bugs, butterflies, and moths. Their vegetarian fare includes elderberries, blackberries, raspberries, mulberries, juneberries, and seeds of smartweed, pigweed, foxtail, milkweed, plus sunflower seeds, garden peas, oats, wheat, tree flowers, tree buds, and cultivated fruit.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
1–5 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
0.8–1.1 in
2–2.7 cm
Egg Width
0.6–0.7 in
1.6–1.9 cm
Incubation Period
11–14 days
Nestling Period
9–12 days
Egg Description
Pale green to blue, with reddish brown or purplish speckles.
Condition at Hatching
Helpless, with sparse white down and closed eyes.
Nest Description

The male and female build the nest together in 4–9 days, working from dawn to dusk. They construct a loose, open cup of coarse sticks, twigs, grasses, weed stems, decayed leaves, or straw, and line it with fine twigs, rootlets, or hair. Sometimes the nest is so flimsy that you can see the outline of the eggs through it. The birds’ habit of using forked twigs may help hold the nest together despite its thin construction. The finished nest measures about 3.5–9 inches across and 1.5–5 inches high on the outside, while the inner cup is about 3–6 inches across and 1–3.5 inches deep.

Nest Placement

Tree

The male may help the female choose a nest site, which is usually in a vertical fork or crotch of a sapling. Nesting plants include maple, red-berried elder, balsam fir, eastern hemlock, and spruce, and may be in wet or dry areas. They are usually in forest openings, overgrown field edges, old pastures, shrubby roads, railroad rights-of-way, gardens, parks, or residential areas. The male and female each may test the nest site’s suitability by settling into it and turning around several times.

Behavior


Foliage Gleaner

Males sing to establish territories and attract females. When a female approaches, the male rebuffs her for a day or two before accepting her as a mate. Once mated, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks appear to be monogamous. A breeding pair will tolerate migrant males in their territory if the intruder is silent. Otherwise, territorial males ward off male intruders by spreading their tails, flicking their wings, raising their crown feathers, and often chasing the intruder away. Males respond strongly to recordings of Rose-breasted Grosbeak songs and Black-headed Grosbeak songs, but they attack mounted specimens of their own species 5 times more often than they attack specimens of the other species. Females drive off other females that approach their mate. Both male and female Rose-breasted Grosbeaks share incubation, brooding, and feeding duties at the nest. Nest predators include Blue Jays and Common Grackles—which breeding grosbeaks will mob noisily and aggressively near the nest—along with red and gray squirrels. Adult grosbeaks are hunted by predators such as Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks. During migration and winter Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are found individually, in pairs, or in loose flocks, sometimes with other species.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are common forest birds but their populations experienced a slow decline from 1966 to 2010, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 4.1 million, with 46 percent spending some part of the year in the U.S., 21 percent in Mexico, and 54 percent breeding in Canada. They rate an 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks nest in saplings, so their numbers could be dropping as forests start to mature over the eastern United States. Because they look and sound pretty, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are commonly trapped for sale as cage birds in their wintering range, and this has an unknown impact on their population.

Credits

Range Map Help

Rose-breasted Grosbeak Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Long-distance migrant. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks fly from North American breeding grounds to Central and northern South America. Most of them fly across the Gulf of Mexico in a single night, although some migrate over land around the Gulf. Grosbeaks that winter in Panama and northern South America tend to be from eastern parts of the breeding range, while those wintering in Mexico and Central America tend to be from western parts.

Backyard Tips

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks often visit bird feeders, where they eat sunflower seeds as well as safflower seeds and raw peanuts. Even if you live outside their summer range you may still catch one visiting during spring or fall migration if you keep your feeders stocked.

Find This Bird

A good way to find Rose-breasted Grosbeaks is to listen for them. The song sounds like an American Robin in an unusually good mood—a long sing-songing string of sweet whistles. Once you hear one, follow the sound until you walk up under his song perch and look for his black, white, and red plumage. Also pay attention for squeaky chink calls—so sharp-sounding that they’re very distinctive. Both males and females frequently give this call. In flight, look for a distinctive pattern of big white spots in their dark wings.

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