Species profile: Rose-breasted Grosbeak, kerchiefed songster

Beautiful Rose-breasted Grosbeak has a bill to handle many foods and a song to delight the ears
By Chuck Hagner | Published: 4/17/2012

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You can tell a lot about a bird by looking at its beak.

Think of the Brown Pelican — its bill includes an expandable pouch just right for catching fish, its favorite food — and the Red-tailed Hawk: its bill is short and hooked at the tip, good for tearing meat. And then there’s the hummingbird, which sips nectar: it has a long, narrow bill, perfect for reaching into long, narrow flowers.

The chunky songbird known as the Rose-breasted Grosbeak is a beloved and eagerly anticipated spring returnee. Its bill is unique because of its size — the bird’s name, after all, derives from the French term grosbec, meaning “large beak” — and because it permits the bird to eat just about anything. (Story continues below.)

  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak, male This photo was posted in the Backyard Gallery by paddler.

  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak, male This photo was posted in the Backyard Gallery by paulie8pointer.

  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak, female This photo was posted in the Backyard Gallery by Jim.

  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak, female This photo was posted in the Backyard Gallery by mnoasis33.

  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak, male This photo was posted in the Backyard Gallery by KevinColton.

  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak, male This photo was posted in the Backyard Gallery by IPMCanada.

  • Black-headed Grosbeak Stocky Black-headed Grosbeak, common throughout the West, is closely related to Rose-breasted Grosbeak. The birds have nearly identical songs, they hybridize in the Great Plains, and both spend the winter in Mexico. Along with Black-backed Oriole, a species endemic to Mexico, Black-headed feeds heavily on wintering monarch butterflies. Look for it in late April in the south, early May in the north. This photo was posted in the Backyard Gallery by cdbtx.

Story continues from above. 

After spending the winter months far to our south, from southern Mexico through Central America to northwestern Venezuela and Peru, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks make landfall in the southern United States between late March and mid-April. Then they hurry north, reaching northeastern regions and southern Canada between late April and early May, and winning admirers all the way.

See a range map for Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

Males migrate before females. Jet black above and snowy white below, with a kerchief of rose-red across its breast, the male looks like no other bird. The female is less striking. She’s brown, not black, and heavily streaked, with a white stripe above the eye. Seeing her, you might think you’re looking at an oversize sparrow, but then you’ll notice that bill.

Triangular in shape, thick in proportion, and big, it enables the bird to snip off sweet flower petals, un-shell tasty grasshoppers and beetles, and crush juicy elderberries, blackberries, raspberries, and other wild fruit — the grosbeak’s natural foods.

Just as important, it lets the bird take advantage of backyard feeders. Rose-breasteds eat black-oil sunflower and safflower seeds, they enjoy peanuts and suet, and they dig happily into halved oranges and bowls of grape jelly put out for orioles. Grosbeaks lucky enough to find feeders that don’t require hovering may even help themselves to sugar water intended for hummingbirds.

The species makes its nest in leafy woods in the Appalachians and the northeastern quarter of the United States, and across Canada from British Columbia to the Maritimes. To find out if one is near your house or cabin, just listen.

“Unlike some species that trickle in unobtrusively and may be present for days before beginning to sing,” writes Samuel Robbins Jr., Wisconsin’s best-known grosbeak watcher, “the male Rose-breast flies in during one of the first warm nights in early May and promptly announces his presence with a robinlike warble the next morning.”

Listen to the song of Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

Thoreau thought so highly of the warble that he called the grosbeak “our richest singer.” I bet you’ll agree.

Chuck Hagner is the editor of BirdWatching. A version of this article also appeared in the May 2012 issue of Cabin Life magazine.

Have you photographed of Rose-breasted Grosbeak? Upload your photos in our galleries