Photo: Glenn Bartley/Vireo

Black-headed Grosbeak

Pheucticus melanocephalus

In foothills and riverside woods of the West, this species is often very common as a nesting bird. In mid-summer, the oak woodlands often resound with the insistent whining whistle of young Black-headed Grosbeaks begging for food. This is among few birds able to eat Monarch butterflies, despite the noxious chemicals those insects contain from eating milkweeds in the larval stage; in Mexico in winter, the grosbeaks eat large numbers of Monarchs.
Conservation status Widespread and common, numbers apparently stable.
Family Cardinals
Habitat Deciduous and mixed woods. Breeds mainly in oak woodland, streamside groves of cottonwood and willow, pine-oak woods in mountains, pinyon-juniper woodland; seldom in purely coniferous forest. In migration, occurs in any kind of open woods, streamside trees, suburbs, mesquite groves, desert washes. Winters in open woods and brush of the tropics, from lowlands to mountains.
In foothills and riverside woods of the West, this species is often very common as a nesting bird. In mid-summer, the oak woodlands often resound with the insistent whining whistle of young Black-headed Grosbeaks begging for food. This is among few birds able to eat Monarch butterflies, despite the noxious chemicals those insects contain from eating milkweeds in the larval stage; in Mexico in winter, the grosbeaks eat large numbers of Monarchs.
Photo Gallery
  • adult male
  • adult female
  • immature male (1st summer)
  • juvenile female
  • adult male
Feeding Behavior

Forages mostly in shrubs and trees, searching for food among foliage. Also may forage on ground and in low growth. Sometimes hovers to take insects from foliage, or catches them in mid-air.


Eggs

3-4, sometimes 2-5. Pale greenish blue, spotted with reddish brown. Incubation is by both parents, 12-14 days; only female incubates at night. Young: Both parents feed the nestlings. Young climb out of nest after about 11-12 days, but are unable to fly for about 2 more weeks; they remain in nearby trees waiting to be fed. Probably 1 brood per year.


Young

Both parents feed the nestlings. Young climb out of nest after about 11-12 days, but are unable to fly for about 2 more weeks; they remain in nearby trees waiting to be fed. Probably 1 brood per year.

Diet

Mostly insects, seeds, and berries. In summer feeds on many insects, including beetles, caterpillars, wasps, bees, flies, and many others, also spiders and snails. Feeds on seeds of various weeds, and eats berries of many plants (including mistletoe and poison oak) as well as some cultivated fruit. Young are fed mostly insects at first.


Nesting

Male sings to defend nesting territory. In courtship, male performs song flights above female, flying with wings and tail fully spread while singing almost continuously. Nest: Placed in tree or large shrub (usually deciduous), 3-25' above the ground, usually about 10-12' up. Nest (built mostly or entirely by female) is an open cup, loosely constructed and bulky, made of twigs, weeds, rootlets, pine needles, lined with fine plant fibers, rootlets, and animal hair.

Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
Learn more about these drawings.

Migration

Tends to migrate late in spring and early in fall. Some birds begin to appear away from nesting areas as early as mid-July. Strays rarely reach Atlantic Coast, generally in late fall or winter.

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Migration

Tends to migrate late in spring and early in fall. Some birds begin to appear away from nesting areas as early as mid-July. Strays rarely reach Atlantic Coast, generally in late fall or winter.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
Rich warble similar to that of a robin but softer, sweeter, and faster. Call note an emphatic, sharp tick, slightly metallic in tone.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
Learn more about this sound collection.