Living Bird Magazine
Black-headed GrosbeakPheucticus melanocephalus
- ORDER: Passeriformes
- FAMILY: Cardinalidae
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.More ID Info
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.
- Picogrueso Cabecinegro (Spanish)
- Cardinal à tête noire (French)
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.
- 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 a male, at least 11 years, 11 months old, when it was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in Montana.