Illustration by Diane Pierce
The handsome black-headed grosbeak is the western counterpart to the East’s rose-breasted grosbeak, and the 2 even occasionally hybridize where they come into contact in the western Great Plains. Singing males are generally easy to see in a variety of habitats, from open coniferous forests to montane riparian areas. The black-headed is insectivorous during the nesting season and then mainly frugivorous, particularly during late summer. Like the rose-breasted, it is a neotropical migrant. Males are striking; females and immatures are duller. The bill is large and conical, typically bicolored; the wing linings are yellow in both sexes. Polytypic (the 2 North American subspecies are poorly differentiated; the coastal birds have shorter wings, smaller bills, and a tawnier supercilium than the interior birds). Length 8.3" (21 cm).
Identification Adult male: plumage is striking: a cinnamon-colored body including collar, with entirely black head, mostly black back with narrow streaks, black wings with bold white wing bars, white tips to tertials, and white patch at the base of primaries. Center to lower belly yellow. Adult winter: similar to adult male, but head less black, supercilium and crown strip cinnamon, and streaks on back more prominent. First-summer male: like adult winter male, but wings less black. First-winter male: like female, but underparts more cinnamon without streaking, and underside of tail gray. Adult female: mainly dull brown, with streaked back, buffy-white nape and supercilium. Underparts variable, from buffy to almost white, with varying amount of streaking on the sides of the breast and flanks.
Similar Species The adult male not confused with other species. The female and first-winter male confused with the female and first-winter male rose-breasted. Note the different amount of streaking on the underparts and the color of the bill.
Voice Call: a sharp eek, similar to the rose-breasted’s, but decidedly less squeaky. Song: robinlike series of warbled phrases, like rose-breasted’s. Virtually indistinguishable from the hepatic tanager’s song, where the 2 species overlap.
Status and Distribution Common throughout entire West. Breeding: nests in a variety of habitats, from mixed coniferous forest to montane riparian. Arrives on breeding ground from mid-April (in south) to mid-May (in north). Migration: migrates in spring singly or in small groups, unlike the rose-breasted, which sometimes migrates in large flocks. In fall, not uncommon to see several in a fruiting tree. Adults begin migrating south by mid-July. Juveniles migrate later, through October. Winter: mainly Mexico. Vagrant: casual or accidental wanderer, mainly in fall and winter, to virtually all eastern states and provinces. Spring overshoots known from Alaska and Northwest Territories.
Population No known threats.
—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006
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