Bird Lore: Rose-breasted Grosbeak

A new bird, a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak, arrived in Edmonds on June 18 and stayed at the Willow Creek Hatchery long enough to be noticed by two birders. This is a stocky, medium-sized songbird that migrates from Central and South America in the spring. It mostly stays east of the Rocky Mountains but there are reports of this bird in Washington every year. The recent bird is a first for Edmonds.

Pete Dunne, a well-respected nature writer, notes that “[c]rimson-bibbed black-and-white males look like they’ve been shot through the heart.” These birds are about the same size and shape of the migratory Black-headed Grosbeaks that are more common in the western states. The Rose-breasted Grosbeak sports a large, pale pink parrot-like bill, whereas the Black-headed Grosbeak has a gray bill. In parts of the Great Plains, in areas where both species are scarce, these two grosbeaks will hybridize.

The Rose-breasted Grosbeak is a canopy-loving bird of the forest. It sings from a high perch and is often hidden by foliage. The most successful way to find this bird is to listen for it first, identifying its long string of sweet whistles. Then follow the sound to the bird’s song perch. When in migration, this bird can be found in a wide variety of habitats. It winters in forests and semi-open areas in Central and South America, both at middle elevations and in highlands, as high as 11,000 feet in Colombia.

During breeding season the Rose-breasted Grosbeak eats lots of insects in addition to wild fruit and seeds. It usually gleans food from dense foliage branches but sometimes will fly out from a branch to hawk insects in midair. Insects include beetles, bees, ants, bugs, moths, and butterflies. Fruits that attract this species are blackberries, raspberries, mulberries, and juneberries. It also eats the seeds of smartweed, pigweed, milkweed and sunflowers, in addition to tree flowers, tree buds and cultivated fruit. It will also come to bird feeders for seeds and dried fruits.

The male Rose-breasted Grosbeak sings to establish its territory and attract a female. Once mated, the pair appear to be monogamous. The male will tolerate a migrating male in its territory as long is the intruder is silent. Song will cause the territorial male to drive the intruder away. The female of the pair will also drive off another female that approaches its mate.

This species places its nest in a vertical fork or crotch of a sapling of maple, red-berried elder, balsam fir, eastern hemlock, or spruce. Nesting trees are usually in forest openings, field edges that are overgrown, railroad right-of-way, old pastures, gardens, parks, or residential areas. The pair build their nest together, working all day for four to nine days. The nest is a loose, open cup of coarse twigs, sticks, grasses, and weed stems. It is lined with fine twigs, rootlets, or hair. The nest is often so flimsy that the outline of the eggs can be seen through it. The clutch is one to five eggs and there may be one to two broods each breeding season.

The male and female share incubation for 11-14 days. The hatchlings remain in the nest for nine-12 days and are fed by both adults. Then the male may continue caring for the fledged chicks while the female begins to build another nest for a second brood.

Research has demonstrated that the white markings on the male Rose-breasted Grosbeak are more important than its red chest for stimulating aggression. Two males share the record for the oldest member of this species. Both birds were banded and, when recaptured and released, they were at least 12 years and 11 months of age.

The Rose-breasted Grosbeak is a species of relatively low conservation concern. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of about 4.7 million. Since this grosbeak nests in saplings, numbers might be dropping as forests mature over the eastern U.S. Adult grosbeaks are hunted by predators such as Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks. On their winter range to the south, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are commonly trapped for sale as cage birds. This practice has had an unknown impact on population.

You can listen to the male’s song here: . It sounds similar to that of the Black-headed Grosbeak. Both grosbeaks sing a slow, flowing robin-like series of sweet whistled notes.

— By Carol Riddell

  1. Thank you for this fascinating bird story and photographs. I wouldn’t mind a regular feature along these lines, even about more familiar denizens of our dwindling local habitat.

      1. Thank you! I must have missed them in the past. Or forgot. Guess I have some catching up to do…

  2. Hi Michael,

    The Rose-breasted Grosbeak migrates north between March and early June. Besides breeding in the eastern US and the Great Plains, it also breeds in Canada as far west as northeastern British Columbia. The bird could have been working its way south because it did not successfully breed or it might have produced one brood at a BC nesting site and then started south, passing through Western Washington. A third, but less likely possibility, is that it was a very late northward migrant. I say less likely because birds migrating north are adults and know which flyway they are supposed to be using. This species does not use the Pacific Flyway. In southbound migration there is more wandering, particularly by young birds that lose their way. A few can end up in any part of the country.

  3. Hi Vince,

    Bird Lore was a regular MEN feature for a number of years. I covered most of the expected species in our area, from resident birds to migrating birds. I paused the column during the pandemic for no particular reason other than inertia. I am now writing the occasional column about rarer birds that have appeared in Edmonds. Teresa has kindly archived all of the prior Bird Lore columns under the Columns tab. If this column sparks an interest from readers, they can peruse any or all of the past columns to learn more about our avian neighbors.

  4. Hi Kenneth,

    The bird was there and gone. Good birders who went quickly to see it were unable to relocate it.

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