Vancouver Avian Research Centre

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Species: Black-headed Grosbeak Pheucticus melanocephalus


In many areas of western North America, the melodious song of the Black-headed Grosbeak is a familiar harbinger of spring. Adult males have a flashy black, white, and cinnamon plumage; females are relatively drab buff and brown. Despite their showyplumage, males share about equally with females in incubating and feeding young.
One interesting feature of the Black-headed Grosbeak is that males do not attain definitive nuptial plumage until their second breeding season and vary in appearance from female-like to adult-male-like in their first potential breeding season. Only yearling males that most closely resemble adult males are able to defend a territory and attempt to breed.
This species breeds from subalpine forests to desert riparian zones throughout western North America from southwestern Canada to southern Mexico.


General: Medium sized cardinal finch. Stocky with a large head and very large bill.
Length 17-20 cm. Weight 45g.

Adult Male: Black head, large pale bill, rusty orange collar, breast, sides and rump; yellow belly and wing linings. Bold white wing bars on black wing. In flight, shows white patches on wings and yellow “armpits”.

Adult female: Brown head with buffy to white crown and eye-stripe, a pale chin, brown wings and tail with indistinct buffy spots, and heavily streaked body plumage that is dull cinnamon to buff with variable amounts of yellow. Yellow “armpits”.

Juvenile: Generally resemble adult females, but males are brighter on average than females.

Similar Species: Adult males are distinct from all other species. Females and especially juveniles are sometimes confused with Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, but females of that species are more coarsely streaked, and their breast, eye-stripe, and crown stripes tend toward white, generally lacking the buffy to yellow cast characteristic of female Black-headed Grosbeaks. Difference in colour of wing lining-lemon yellow in female Black-headed Grosbeak and saffron yellow in female Rose-breasted Grosbeak-is diagnostic.

Behavior: Flight is slightly undulation with rapid wing beats except for flight displays given in spring.
Song is delivered from a high perch and occasionally in flight.
Forages in the foliage of trees, eating pine and other seeds, wild berries, insects and spiders. Comes to bird feeders for sunflower seed, other types of seed, and fruit.

Habitat: Common in open woodlands, forest edges, woods along rivers, edges of second-growth mixed forests, mountain forest edges: orchards and gardens.
Relatively tolerant of human disturbance, it breeds in yards and gardens if adequate cover for nesting and feeding is available.


The Black-headed Grosbeak hybridizes with its eastern counterpart, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak, along their mutual boundary. This situation arose when the treeless prairies, which once formed a barrier between the two species, became dotted with towns and homesteads, providing suitable habitats for both species. The Black-headed Grosbeak is a rather still and secretive bird throughout the summer.
The nest is made of twigs, rootlets, flower heads, and stems lined with stems and rootlets, placed in the fork of a tree or shrub 4-25ft above the ground. 2-5 blue-white or green-white with brown spotted eggs.

Conservation Status:

Population is large and relatively stable. On breeding rounds Black-headed Grosbeaks benefit from some human activity. Irrigation of arid regions, planting of orchards, creation of openings in dense forest improve habitat for grosbeaks. However, much habitat has been lost to urbanization. It is difficult to assess the net affect of human activities on breeding grounds on population.
Capture Rates

Black-headed Grosbeaks utilize diverse habitats and are plentiful during the breeding season at Colony Farms. Males arrive shortly before females in late spring and numbers increase, peaking in August corresponding to juvenile dispersal as is reflected by the capture rates (2010-2012; standardized as birds captured per 100 net hours) from May - September. Grosbeaks are medium distance migrants, moving southward to central Mexico for the winter as seen by our zero capture rate between October - April.


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