Black-headed Grosbeak

Black-headed Grosbeak (male), California

Black-headed Grosbeak (male), California

Here’s a bird I am fortunate to have residing in my backyard every summer.  They migrate here from Mexico every spring, mate up and breed, raise their chicks.


The new chicks right now are in their first few weeks of life.  They flutter helplessly on tree limbs, whistling an insistent mewing cry (“feed me feed me feed me”) until the parent brings food.


BH Grosbeak (female), California

BH Grosbeak (female), California

Black-headed grosbeaks prefer mixed forest habitat and oak woodlands for their summer breeding.  They can also be found in streamside corridors, pine woodlands, and suburban green areas.


They are not picky eaters or nesters, a fact that has stabilized their population.


More grosbeak info here.


In Mexico, during the winter months, they live in similar habitats in tropical and subtropical lowlands.  There they eat resident monarch butterflies, an insect that most birds and mammals strictly avoid due to toxicity. They eat the butterflies in eight day cycles to sufficiently eliminate toxins.


BH Grosbeak (juvenile), California

BH Grosbeak (juvenile), California

Pheucticus melanocephalus are classified in the same family as the northern cardinal, both songbirds of a similar size with seed-eating bills.


Named for their large beak, they crack seeds quickly and efficiently.  They also use that massive beak to crush and eat beetles and snails.


7.5 inches long (19cm), they have an extensive diet:  spiders and other insects, berries, grains, cultivated fruit in orchards, and wild fruit too.



Courtesy Wikipedia

They also voraciously eat sunflower seeds at feeders.  Now that the juveniles are eating, we fill a five pound feeder every other day!


They are animated and elegant, and conspicuous in their colorful plumage…and there’s more:  their sound.


Rose-breasted Grosbeak, a rare find in Calif., joins the Black-headed

Rose-breasted Grosbeak (left), a rare find in Calif., joins the Black-headed

Both genders fill the air with a sublime fluty warble.  Sometimes it is difficult to differentiate their song from a robin’s, until you hear their characteristic sharp “spik” contact call.  Long spring serenades thrill all of us, not just the intended.


Click here to hear adult’s song.


Soon they will be on their way and, if all goes right, they will return again next year.  In early April we will buy sunflower seeds, a pricier feeder endeavor, and keep special feeders filled for our grosbeak guests.


Black-headed Grosbeak (male), California

Black-headed Grosbeak (male), California

Then we have four months of grosbeak glory…and at least twice as many of the species will fly back to Mexico.


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander



44 thoughts on “Black-headed Grosbeak

  1. Jet how awesome that these wee singers live in your backyard. The mewing of the little ones tugs at my heartstrings. Hopefully a Mama cat doesn’t get confused by the call.
    I listened to the audio recording and was imagining what that bird might be saying. Sounded like quite the conversation. “Have you seen the neighbor’s nest? What a disgrace. Twigs sticking out here, feathers there…” Do you imagine that was the translation? 🙂

    • Your translation made me smile, Sue; I’m so glad you got into the grosbeaks. We live on a very isolated property where there are no neighbors or cats in sight, so I think the dialogue is about watching out for the Cooper’s hawk that comes by every few days to nab a pigeon or squirrel. lol. You always give me a smile–much appreciated. And have a great week!

    • I was thinking about you when I posted this morning, HJ, because you’re the feeder guru. I’m so glad you had a chance to visit today and see some feeder action. My best wishes and thanks to you~~

    • Hi Alastair. They have an amazing call, I’m glad you enjoyed it, and yes, I feel really lucky to have xeno-canto for the sound bytes and spectral displays. I searched about two dozen bytes for the sound of the juvenile mewing, but interestingly the mewing juveniles in other states sound different than ours here, so I wasn’t able to find the exact sound. Outdoor recording is quite an art, I appreciate the skill and patience you and other sound artists hone.

      • That’s very interesting about them having different sounds in other states. It suggests they are influenced by the environment. Some would argue (myself included) that we too are influenced by our environment – phenomenology is connected to this.

  2. I have heard these beautiful birds singing when visiting California….and thought their song to be lovely….I am also fascinated with the information about their eating Monarch butterflies and clearly having some sort of an internal warning signal that allows them to illuminate toxins! I always learn something when I read your blog……thank you, Jet. Wishing you a lovely Monday and week ahead. Janet:)

    • How wonderful that you have enjoyed the song of the black-headed grosbeak, Janet. The world is a sweeter place because of them. I only learned the monarch fact when I did research for this post, so I found that interesting too. Always a treat to share info with you, Janet~~

  3. Thanks for sharing these beautiful photographs, Jet. So interesting how they cope with Monarch toxins. And how marvellous that they nest and summer in your backyard and fill the air with their cheerful warbly sounds! 🙂

  4. What a beautiful bird (and song!) Interesting to see their range takes them up into southern Alberta – I’ll keep an eye and ear open for them. I had no idea monarch butterflies are toxic – always learning from your blog!
    Thanks, Jet, a lovely start to the week!

    • Yes, you might see the grosbeak in the Alberta area. You and Mrs. pc are outside so much, you just might see some. They would be more likely to be found in woodland, and the local Audubon website would probably tell you where they reside, if they do. Thanks so much for stopping by, pc, I always enjoy your comments and visits.

  5. Beautiful birds to admire in your backyard, Jet! Interesting and educational info to read about, and they eat butterflies…
    Thank you for sharing. 🙂

  6. I haven’t seen any grosbeaks in our backyard – we seem to have a lot of spotted towhees, woodpeckers, jays and quail. Maybe they don’t get along with the grosbeaks! ; )

    • Your backyard sounds delightful, Jan – very birdy. They do all get along, but it’s possible the grosbeak live elsewhere. They look a lot like spotted towhees, similar colors. Enjoy!

  7. such a nice looking bird and how wonderful to have them singing and nesting in your backyard during summer! i see they have quite strong beaks. thank you as always, Jet, for these wonderful reads! 🙂

  8. We have had the pleasure of the rose-breasted grosbeak visiting the last couple summers, but I have never seen the black-headed grosbeak. They have become a favorite at the bird feeder and, unlike the cardinal, do not seem to mind an audience or a photographer following them. Thanks for sharing the great photos and information.

    • Your comment made me laugh, Bill, because we often say how lucky we are, AND how lucky they are. After the grosbeaks leave, the feeders go back to the wild bird seed mix with millet and an occasional black sunflower seed. As a bird feeder filler, you know exactly how that goes…i.e. birds don’t “eat like birds!!”

  9. You’re lucky to have these annual visitors. They have a very pleasant song. Well done on giving them food, as well. The Monarch Butterfly diet doesn’t sound healthy, but Nature has a way of keeping the cycle of life going.

    • Hi Draco — yes, we are lucky to have the grosbeaks as annual visitors. The first one I ever saw was on the trail about a decade earlier, before I lived here. And I stood on that hillside, my binoculars to my eyes, enthralled with this beautiful bird. I had no idea I was going to one day see them in my back yard.

    • It is indeed such a pleasure, Indah. Soon they will be leaving for the season, so I am glad I had the chance to give the grosbeaks a tribute post. Glad you liked it! 🙂

  10. Enjoy hearing their song; seeing the map; and seeing the male, female, and juvenile. A thorough presentation! Thank you, Jet!

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