Skip to Content

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

As their name hints, these birds have a patch of red on their chest.

The male Rose-breasted Grosbeak is stunningly pattered in red, black, and white, and is a fairly common spring migrant and breeder across parts of eastern North America. The female Rose-breasted Grosbeak, in typical songbird fashion, is more subdued in coloration, and is difficult to tell apart from her western relative the female Black-headed Grosbeak.

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeaks help with incubation during the day, although females do most of the daytime incubating and all nighttime incubating. Nest parasitism by Brown-headed Cowbirds is low, perhaps because the adult grosbeaks are aggressive in defending their nests.


Description of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak


The Rose-breasted Grosbeak is a chunky bird, smaller than an American Robin, with a very thick bill and white patches in the wings.

Males have blackish head, back, and wings, with a triangular, rose-red patch on the breast.  The rump and belly are white.  Adult males can not be confused with other species.  Length: 8 in.  Wingspan: 12 in.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Photograph © Glenn Bartley.


Females are largely whitish below with obvious brown streaking, and are brownish above with a whitish eyeline and pale bill.

Seasonal change in appearance

Winter birds resemble breeding birds but are paler and more mottled.


Juveniles and young birds resemble winter adults of the same gender.


Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are found in a variety of deciduous woodlands.


Rose-breasted Grosbeaks primarily eat insects, seeds, and berries.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Female. Photograph © Greg Lavaty.


Rose-breasted Grosbeaks forage primarily in trees and shrubs. They will also visit bird feeders for seeds.


Rose-breasted Grosbeaks breed throughout the northeastern and central U.S. and central Canada. The population has declined in recent decades.

More information:

Bent Life History

Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

Wing Shape

The shape of a bird’s wing is often an indication of its habits and behavior. Fast flying birds have long, pointed wings. Soaring birds have long, broad wings. Different songbirds will have a slightly different wing shape. Some species look so much alike (Empidonax flycatchers) that scientists sometimes use the length of specific feathers to confirm a species’ identification.

Wing images from the University of Puget Sound, Slater Museum of Natural History

Fun Facts

Both male and female Rose-breasted Grosbeaks sing, and they occasionally even sing while on their nest.

Hybridization with Black-headed Grosbeaks has been reported where their ranges overlap.


The song is a fast warble, very robin-like, though faster. One common call is a sharp, squeaky “pik”.


Similar Species

  • Black-headed Grosbeak
    Black-headed Grosbeak females are very similar to female Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, but have darker bills and more buffy underparts with less streaking.


The nest is an open cup of twigs, weeds, and leaves lined with finer materials.  It is usually placed in a deciduous tree or shrub.

Number: Usually lay 3-5 eggs.
Color: Greenish-blue with darker markings.

Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 13-14 days, and leave the nest in another 9-12 days, though they continue to associate with the adults for some time.


Bent Life History of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.

Bent Life History for the Rose-breasted Grosbeak – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.



When I was a boy we never looked for the rose-breasted grosbeak about our home grounds; if we wanted to see it, we had to hunt for it in the second-growth woodlands, far from human dwellings, on the wooded borders of swamps and streams, or wherever there was a dense growth of small trees and bushes along the edges of the woods or neglected pastures. Such places are still its favorite haunts. But, within the past 50 years it has, like that other woodland dweller, the wood thrush, learned to find sanctuary and a congenial home closer to the haunts of man in our towns, villages, and suburban grounds, where we can more easily enjoy its beauty of plumage and the richness of its song. The rear half of my grounds is well wooded with trees and shrubbery, though close to the center of the city, and here a pair of these grosbeaks have for several years built their nest and reared their young within a stone’s throw of brick buildings.

Perhaps they find some protection from their natural enemies, and they certainly make delightful neighbors for bird lovers.

Spring: Some of the early migrants vary considerably in their times of arrival, but there are two colorful summer visitors to our grounds, the Baltimore oriole and the rose-breasted grosbeak, that we look for with considerable confidence fairly early in May. Winsor M. Tyler sends me his impression of the grosbeak’s coming as follows: “About midway in the May migration in New England, after many birds have long since returned to their breeding grounds, when we have listened to the robin’s song for weeks, and we have almost come to look for that late comer, the wood pewee with his sweet, solemn song, there comes a new singer to the chorus. It stands out from the others: from the robin’s alternating unending repetition and from the tiring reiteration of the red-eyed vireo. It adds a voice of its own to the month of May and a very welcome one. It sings a long phrase with a well-defined form like a pretty little poem, sung in the softest of tones full of delicacy and charm, a voice of syrupy sweetness like no other bird. It is the rose-breasted grosbeak, pleasing both to eye and ear.

“A characteristic habit of the male grosbeaks in spring is to take their stand on a roadway and hop about in a small company showing their black and white pattern with the blotch of rose on the breast. I have seen them year after year, always when newly arrived, on the paved streets which surround Lexington common, perhaps half a dozen in Full view, silent, but very conspicuous. Later in the year they keep well hidden in the shade trees and resume their glorious song.”

Courtship: Tyler contributes the following note: “The courtship of the rose-breasted grosbeak, or its culmination, is a quiet, dignified act. There is none of the hot pursuit of the bobolink with almost a rape at the end. The two grosbeaks appear truly fond of each other. We see the female bird turn her head upward toward her mate and their beaks come together in a sort of kiss. All is harmony and peace, a picture of affection and contentment, not uncontrolled passion. They are on a branch of a tree or shrub, perhaps near where their nest will be. Their behavior resembles the love-making of the scarlet tanager under similar~circumstances, quiet and staid with none of the abandon of the farmyard.”

But there is nothing peaceful in the preliminaries to courtship, when the males often engage in fierce combat, more spectacular, however, than harmful, except for the loss of a few feathers. Sometimes several males may be seen hovering about one female, fighting among themselves and singing to her at the same time.

H. Roy Ivor writes Taber of the unusual courtship behavior of a male which had undertaken the feeding of its young, inasmuch as the female had started building a second nest some distance away. In one instance the feeding was long delayed. When the male finally did come and feed the young, it departed to a ravine outside its territory. Says Ivor: “His voice now was the courtship song, so different from the territorial; so entrancingly beautiful that words cannot describe it, and his courtship display an exquisite tableau. He spread and dropped his rapidly quivering wings so low that the tips of the primaries grazed the ground upon which he stood. His body was held in a crouching position with the breast almost touching the ground: his tail partly spread and slightly elevated: his head retracted so far that his nape lay against the feathers of his back. The mating song poured forth from his open beak as he moved toward the female, waving his head and body in an erratic dance. The downward and forward sweep of his wings revealed in striking contrast the blacks and Whites of the separated flight feathers, the vivid rose of the under wing coverts, and the white of the rump. The song was soft, low, and continuous, with a great variety of notes.” An unmated female apparently wandering through his territory had caused temporary desertion of family. She seemed to pay him no attention, and the male returned to his family.

Nesting: The nests of the rose-breasted grosbeak are usually placed at no great height, seldom more than 15 feet or less than 6 feet above the ground, and mostly less than 10 feet, but some notable exceptions have been recorded. At the southern end of its breeding range, in the mountains of northern Georgia, Thomas D. Burleigh (1927b) reports that most nests are found in rhododendron thickets from 5 to 15 feet above the ground, hut he records two exceptionally high nests; one was 25 feet from the ground “at the extreme outer end of a yellow birch sapling”; and the other “was fully fifty feet from the ground at the extreme outer end of an upper limb of a tall slender chestnut.”

From the northern end of this grosbeak’s breeding range Mrs. Louise de Kiiine Lawrence of Rutherglen, Ontario, writes to me: “In the spring of 1946 I was surprised to find two pairs of rosebreasted grosbeaks building their nests in white birches at a height of between 40 and 50 feet from the ground. * * * These two are the only nests I have observed at such heights. The usual heights are from 4 to 20 feet from the ground in this area. The nesting trees I have seen used, apart from white birch and white and balsam spruce, have been red maple and white pine.”

In his notes sent to me, A. D. Du Bois records, among 13 nests found in Illinois and Minnesota, 2 nests in apple trees, 2 in small elms, i in an osage orange hedge, and 1 in a haw bush. Mr E. Shore writes me of a nest about 5 feet up in a hemlock sapling on the edge of an overgrown pasture, north of Toronto.

Nests have also been recorded in a pear tree, box elder, chokecherry, ironwood, and willow; probably almost any small tree or shrub would be suitable for a nesting site if sufficiently sheltered, As to the selection of the nest site, T. S. Roberts (1932) observed a male rose-breasted grosbeak behaving in an unusual manner in the fork of a small elm tree. “A moment’s watching showed that he was plainly intent upon finding a suitable resting place for the nest. Settling himself into the crotch he turned slowly around and around several times, seemingly trying its fitness for the object m view. Presently he flew to a neighboring tree, whence shortly the female appeared and went through similar movements.” On visiting the spot a few days later, he found a completed nest in that exact spot, with the female sitting on it.

William Brewster (1936) gives the following account of the nestbuilding:

About six o’clock this morning I found a pair of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks beginning their nest in the fork of a gray birch at the east end of Ball’s Hill. They flitted about together, making almost incessantly a soft, low, exquisitely tender calling to one another. The female kept trying to break off dead twigs from birches. When, after many futile attempts, she got one, she flew with it to the fork. The male regularly preceded her and settling down in the fork received from her the twig and set it in place among the few others (less than half a dozen) which had been brought when my observations began. The female invariably gave up the twig when the male reached his bill towards her for it.

The above two accounts show that the male, at least sometimes, takes a leading part in the nest building, but they do not prove that he always does so. However, as he is known to incubate the eggs and feed the young, he may take a more active interest in the nest than we realize.

The nest of this grosbeak is not a work of art, nor is it very substantial. Rev. J. H. Langille (1884) has described it very well as follows: “It is composed outside of small sticks, fine twigs, or coarse strawy material, ornamented with a few skeleton-leaves, and is lined with very fine twigs of some evergreen tree (here, of the hemlock), or with fine rootlets, sometimes being finished with horse-hair, and the whole structure so loosely put together that one can see through it from beneath.”

H. Roy Ivor writes Taber that, in the case of a pair nesting under observation in semicaptivity, “the male does not seem to feed the female except just after mating or when she has her nest just finished.” He also states that, in semicaptivity, two nestings take place during the season. Wild birds have only one brood yearly (Forbush, 1929).

Eggs: The eggs of the rose-breasted grosbeak vary from three to five, with four appearing to be the commonest number in a set. They are ovate, sometimes tending to rounded ovate or elongated ovate, and have little gloss. The ground is “microline green,” “pale Nile blue,” “pale Niagara green,” or “bluish glaucous,” and they are well speckled, spotted, or blotched with such shades of brown as “raw umber,” “auburn,” “chestnut-brown,” “cinnamon brown,” and “mummy brown.” Generally the spots are quite evenly scattered over the entire surface with a tendency to concentrate toward the large end, afid on the heavier marked types the spots may be confluent, forming a solid cap over the top of the egg.

The measurements of 50 eggs average 24.6 by 17.7 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 26.7 by 18.6, 25.7 by 19.1, 20.3 by 17.6, and 23.4 by 10.3 millimeters.

Young: Incubation is shared by both sexes, the handsome and conspicuous male doing his full share, often singing as he sits on the eggs.

Burns (1915) gives 14 days as the period of incubation for the rosebreasted grosbeak; elsewhere (1921) he states that, according to other observers, the young remain in the nest for 9 to 12 days. H. R. Ivor (1944) records the incubation period as 12 to 13 days in his aviary.

The young birds are fed by both parents. Roberts (1932) writes:

Occasionally both birds were busy caring for the young at the same time, but generally tbey took turns at haif-bour intervals. Tbey were feeding chiefly red-elderberries from a clump nearby. Once the male and once the female, after an absence of half an hour, returned with a supply of insect food, giving the entire amount to the nestling that happened to be nearest. On these occasions not only was the old bird’s bill full of insects on arrival, but there was a considerable quantity concealed in the gullet, which was regurgitated in successive small amounts. During one of the male’s turns at feeding he came and went twenty-eight times in thirty minutes, always bringing elderberries from a bush only a few feet distant and feeding the same nestling fifteen times in rapid succession.

Ira N. Gabrielson (1915) made an intensive study of the nest life of a family of these grosbeaks, spending nearly 60 hours in a blind over a period of six days. He and his helpers watched carefully from a distance of 3 to 5 feet and “did not see a single feeding that was clearly regurgitative.” He explains the method of feeding in great detail. His table shows that during the 60 hours the grosbeaks brooded their young for a total of 15 hours and 49 minutes, in periods ranging from 1 hour and 19 minutes to 6 hours and 54 minutes. His food table shows the amounts of the various items fed to the young, among which larvae formed the largest item, with various seeds a poor second; insects, fed in still smaller quantities, included small butterflies and moths, flies, crickets, beetles, and grasshoppers; there were also a few spiders and a few berries. Out of 382 feedings, 283 were by the female. Observations by Francis H. Allen (1916) were somewhat different from the above.

H. Roy Ivor sent Taber detailed observations on the rearing of young birds by adults in semicaptivity. The two young were out of the shell and dry at 8 o’clock the morning of July 5, 1938. The adults divided their attentions; when one was obtaining food, the other covered the young. The male sang while brooding as he had while incubating. The adult on the nest anticipated the return of the other by giving a vocal signal and rising slightly. On July 6 a blue jay took one of the young birds and the third egg; the female abandoned the remaining chick, and the male took over. When feeding he inserted one end of a worm in the young bird’s mouth and made sure the nestling’s throat muscles had a grip before letting go the other end. He broke up large worms except for the skin, and sometimes withdrew the worm from the nestling’s mouth several times before becoming satisfied it could swallow the food. He spent the night on the nest. During the first day the exereta from the young bird were quite stringy and not in a sac; the adult male was careful to pull them out as they were being excreted. He sometimes, but not always, ate the droppings, and on the 14th began to be less careful in housecleaning. On the 14th the peculiar notes of the fledgling replaced the nestling’s chip. Fear, first observed on the 14th, became pronounced on the 16th. The following day, the 17th, the fledgling got out of the nest, but not until July 20 could it fly fairly well. Its body was not fully grown at 19 days. Droppings were still in a sac on July 25, and the adult removed them from under the branch on which the fledgling perched. On July 29 the fledgling had its first bath, and on this date, too, the female, which Ivor had many times attempted to introduce to the nestling, fed the fledged bird, her first such behavior. On July 31 the fledgling was the size of the parents. The father then started to show it how to break open sunflower seeds. Perching beside his offspring on a branch, he cracked a seed, broke the kernel into pieces, and fed it to the young bird. He then gave it a whole kernel. Next, he pretended to give the fledgling an uncracked whole seed, but held on to it and in due time cracked the seed and fed the young bird. By August 5 irritability on the part of the parent, which had been increasing, resulted in his jamming food into the mouth of the young bird, pecking its bill, and driving it away.

Ivor also writes Taber of an instance in which two males had taken over the rearing of four and three chicks, respectively, after their mates started building second nests. The clamor arising from the nest of four during a prolonged absence of the parent proved too much for the other male, 30 feet distant. He came and fed the hungry birds, one at a time, then departed hastily. He repeated this performance a number of times.

Plumages: H. Roy Ivor writes Taber of a nestling that hatched in semicaptivity on July 5. Quills appeared on the wings on July 10. On the 12th the breast quills were just showing and the tail quills were quite perceptible. The primaries started breaking into feathers on the 13th. The inside of the mouth, red on that date, showed a peculiar iridescent shade. The egg tooth had not yet dropped off. On the 14th some down still remained. On the 17th the bird was nearly fully feathered, but the forehead was still bare. Very fine feathers appeared on the cheeks the following day. Feather growth seemed to slow up on July 23.

Dwight (1900) calls the natal down white and describes the juvenal plumage as follows:

Above, including sides of the head, olive-brown with cinnamon and whitish edgings. Wings and tail darker, a white area at the base of the primaries, the rectrices faintly buff tipped, the coverts edged with buff forming two nearly white wing bands. Below, pure white usually a few olive-brown streaks on the sides of the chin and throat. Broad superciliary lines and central crown stripe white, buff y tinged. The edge of the wing is of a pale rose-pink; under wing coverts duller, salmon tinged.

The first winter plumage is acquired by a partial molt, beginning the middle of August and involving the contour plumage and the wing coverts, but not the rest of the wings or the tail. He describes the male as follows:

Above, raw umber streaked with clove-brown darkest on the pileum which has a central buff stripe, the feathers white at their bases. Below, ochraceous buff, white on chin and abdomen, streaked on throat, breast and sides with clove-brown; a geranium-pink area on the jugulum veiled with ochraceous buff. Auriculars sepia bordered with clove-brown. Superciliary stripe and suborbital region white, tinged with buff, the lores grayish buff. The under wing coverts bright geranium-pink, those of the edge of the wing black spotted, the lesser coverts or “shbulders” with a carmine tinge. Two wing bands buff.

He says that the first nuptial plumage is acquired by a partial prenuptial molt late in the winter, “which involves the body plumage, the tertiaries, most of the wing coverts and the tail, leaving only the brown and worn primaries, their coverts and the secondaries.” Charlotte E. Smith writes Austin that “Roberts (1955) mentions the great individual variation in this plumage. Most males become much like full adults, but in addition to the brown wings and tail there is often a trace of the white line over the eye, and the feathers of the back, crown, and rump show some brown or white. Some individuals have a bright and well-defined rose breast patch, in others it is pale pink and blurred; some have a few black wing and tail feathers in early summer.”

Dwight (1900) adds the adult winter plumage is “acquired by a complete postnuptial moult early in August. Easily distinguishable from first winter dress by the jet black wings and tail. Adults are less veiled, the brown deeper and the carmine more extensive often covering the whole throat and breast and invading the abdomen and the crown. A few black spots laterally replace the streaking of the young bird. The wing edgings are whiter than those of the first winter dress.”

The adult nuptial plumage is “acquired by a partial prenuptial moult which involves the body plumage but not the wings nor the tail. Distinguishable from the first nuptial by the black wings and worn tail. The retained tertiaries and secondaries become much worn and the terminal spots are gradually lost often leaving gaps in their place.” Forbush (1929) notes: “It seems possible that some birds may, not acquire highest plumage until the third year or even later.” Charlotte E. Smith writes Austin of a male she banded in first nuptial plumage in 1961 that still had not attained full adult plumage in 1964 at the age of four years.

Hybrids with the black-headed grosbeak, Ph,euetieu.s melanocephalus sometimes occur where the ranges of the two species meet. H. Roy Ivor sent Taber the following notes on the plumages of two hybrid young hatched on June 4, 1943, from the pairing of a male blackheaded grosbeak with a female rose-breasted grosbeak:

“First out of egg: Head fairly good black with a few buff feathers; nape the same; back black and rich bufl striping; rump light cinnamon; upper tail coverts black with cinnamon tips; under tail coverts white tinged with buff at base; tail same black as head; three outer rectrices on each side pure white on ventral surface; chin black with a few buff feathers; breast very rich, almost mahogany brown caused by apricot tinging the feathers, or rather, the color is a combination of these two shades: the apricot is not mixed with the brown but a shade made up of these two: the apricot is pure on the lower breast, forming a fairly wide streak; abdomen white tinged with cinnamon; flanks cinnamon; lesser and greater wing coverts a good black with whitish spots; primaries brown and old with one fairly good black on right wing; secondaries brown with one black on each wing.

“The younger one slinilar except for the appricot streak on lower breast which is more vivid and the abdomen is whiter. The head and other plumage is not quite so far advanced; the chin is salmon with a few buff and one or two black feathers. Apparently the molt so far is somewhat more advanced and taking a shorter time than in the rose-breast males. The upper mandible of the older is darker than that of rose7breasts and the lower mandible the same color as the rosebreast; the upper mandible of the younger bird is darker but not quite so dark as that of the adult black-head; the lower mandible the same as that of the rose-breast. The molt of neither is complete on this date.

“I might add here that the molt of both the black-headed and rosebreasted grosbeaks begins about the middle of January and takes about 43~ mpnths to complete.”

Myron Swenk (1936) summarizes the knowledge of hybridization between rose-breasted and black-headed grosbeaks in the Missouri Valley, and David A. West (1962) made a detailed study of those hybrids where their ranges overlap in the Great Plains.

Food: In his exhaustive report on the subject, W. L. McAtee (1908) gives the following summary:

Examinations of 176 stomachs of rose-breasted grosbeaks show that the food is composed of animal and vegetable matter in almost equal parts, the exact proportidns being 52 and 48 percent, respectively. Of the portion of the diet gleaned from the plant kingdom, 5.09 percent is grain, 1.37 garden peas, and 19.3 wild fruit’. * *

Wild fruit is greatly relished, but cultivated fruit is not damaged, and although budding is practiced to a certain degree practically no harm results.

The rosebreast preys to some extent upon such beneficial insects as parasitic Rymenoptera, ground beetles, ladybirds, and fireflies. Only a tenth of the animai food is of this character, however, while among the remaining nine-tenths, which consists almost exclusively of injurious insects, is included a large number of formidable pests. Among these arc the cucumber beetles, the hickory borer, plum curcullo, Colo~ado potato beetle, Rocky Mountain locust, spring and fall cankerworms, orchard and forest tent-caterpillars, tussock moth, army worm, gipsy [sic] and brown-tailed moths, and the chinch bug. The bird is known as an active enemy of the cankerworm and the army worm during their extraordinary ingestations, and wa~ among the birds which preyed upon the Rocky Mountain locust and the gipsy moth at the height of their destructiveness.

Then follow long lists in detail of the various items of the vegetable and animal food.

H. Lewis Batts, Jr. (1958), specifies leaf beetle larvae, Blepharida rhois, favored as food for the nestlings.

Mrs. Amelia R. Laskey writes to me that she has seen a rosebreasted grosbeak eating elm seeds, “often hanging head downward like a chickadee to pluck the seeds.” And Robert H. llansman tells me that these birds may be “observed opening the long seed pods of the catalpa to obtain the seeds, of which they are very fond.”

B. H. Warren (1890) mentions that all these grosbeaks, taken in May and examined by him, had been feeding on the blossoms of hickory and beech trees. Dr. Charles H. Blake writes that the birds eat buds of the white ash, Fraxinus americana, in spring and the fruit of the European mountain ash, Sorbus aucuparia, in late August.

It is an open question whether blossom eating and budding is harmful to the trees or beneficial as proper pruning.

Behavior: H. R. Ivor (1944) has studied the behavior of two pairs of rose-breasted grosbeaks in semicaptivity in his aviaries and has published the results of his observations in great detail. His paper is well worth reading. It throws considerable light on the probable behavior of the birds in a wild state, because they were free to come and go and spent some of their time outside the aviary. After the first broods had left the nests, the young birds were cared for by the males, and the females started building their second nests outside the aviary; 13 eggs were hatched in these 4 nests and all 13 young were reared to maturity.

“When allowed freedom after the first eggs were laid, the birds regularly visited the woods to feed on insects, ceasing almost entirely to use the artificial food provided in the aviary. * * * They found the entrances to the aviary without difficulty after foraging in the woods.” Referring to the word “probable” in the first paragraph above, Ivor wrote Taber, Aug. 6, 1957, “Over 25 years’ experimenting has shown me that such behavior was normal.”

Voice: Aretas A. Saunders has sent me some elaborate notes on the songs of this bird, from which I quote the following parts:

“The song of the rose-breasted grosbeak consists of a series of rapid notes, largely connected by liquid consonant sounds, and rarely with two successive notes on the same pitch. It is commonly described as a warble, but, as groups of notes are separated from each other by very short pauses, it is not so definitely a warble as are some other songs, such as those of the warbling vireo and the purple finch. The quality is very similar to that of the American robin, so much so that many confuse the two songs, though there is a definite difference. It differs from the song of the robin by the much shorter pauses between phrases, so short, in fact, that the song sounds continous, whereas the robin has pauses between the phrases as long as the phrases themselves. Rarely the grosbeak puts longer pauses into its song, and then it sounds much like the robin. I have only two such records, but one other in which the first three phrases were timed like those of the robin, and the other six phrases rapid, like normal grosbeak songs.”

Saunders states that the length of songs depends in part on the rapidity of the singing, but more on the number of notes or phrases. Notes vary from 10 to 23 per song, averaging 16 in 37 records; phrases vary from 4 to 14, averaging 81 2~ The length of the song varies from 2 to 6% seconds, averaging about 3%. Pitch varies from G, to D7. Pitch intervals range from 212 to 6 tones, averaging about 4 tones.

In the height of the mating season, the male sings a much more prolonged song in flight when pursuing a female. Often two males, both singing, pursue the same female, and on one occasion I observed three. This pursuit flight song sounds much like the regular song, except that the phrases are more rapid and the pauses between them shorter. Saunders continues:

“I have never found songs of two different individuals that were just alike. Each individual has several different songs, but each bird is inclined to begin each song in the same way, the first three or four phrases being identical, but the endings of the songs quite variable.

“The season of song lasts from the first arrival of birds in the spring to about the middle of July. Occasionally one may hear a grosbeak sing in late August or September, but whenever I have done so and seen the bird that was singing, it proved to be an immature male.

“The common call-note is a high-pitched, short, and squeaky kink. Young birds, shortly after they leave the nest, are quite noisy and use a variety of notes, most of which are squeaky, but one is an upwards slurred tyoooeee, as soft and sweet as the call of a bluebird. When a young bird is lost and becomes hungry, its call is a downwardslurred wheeay.”

Francis H. Allen writes to me of one of these grosbeaks “who frequently introduced into his song three long, ascending whistles, reminding me of the weet-weet-weet of the spotted sandpiper, though they had much more of a rising inflection. He also introduced a short chuee, repeated rapidly about four times, and a short, low trill suggestive of the wood thrush. These unusual notes were generally at the end of the song. Once I heard him give, after the characteristic warbles of the species, first the three long whistles, then the trill, then the chuee, chuee, chuee, chuee, then a sweet falling whistle with diminuendo.

“On May 28, 1947, a bird preluded his regular song with a faint and short ti-ti-sweet and then a louder, husky trill, wi-wi-wi-wi-wi, after which the song continued in normal fashion.”

The male often sings while on the nest and sometimes at night. The female occasionally sings a softer and shorter song than that of the male, but similar to it. H. Roy Ivor writes Taber that the female of a pair in semicaptivity sang on the nest, and “that the male uttered a courtship song in a remarkably low, sweet voice. One has to be very close to hear all the notes of this love song.”

Charlotte E. Smith sent Austin the following observations: “In addition to the common metallic ‘click’ call-note, which is rather soft but distinct, I have heard an alarm note which, although very similar, is noticeably different because it is louder and much sharper, with the quality (to my ears) of the call of the hairy woodpecker.

I have heard both males and females give this note when blue jays or grackles attempted to share the feeder. Some individuals, both male and female, also utter a ‘distress’ call when held for banding: a series of loud, piercing screeches similar, but greatly magnified, to the sounds purple finches make under like circumstances. I have never heard this distress call given under natural conditions, though conceivably attack by any predator should evoke it.”

Enemies: Friedmann (1929) calls the rose-breasted grosbeak “a fairly common victim” of the cowbird and says: “Numerous published records from all parts of this bird’s range * * * have come to my notice. I know of no instance where more than two Cowbirds’ eggs have been found in any one nest of this species.” But Jim Hodges (1946) reports a nest of this grosbeak containing “five wellincubated eggs of the Cowbird but none of the grosbeak.” And the male grosbeak was incubating them.

Hamerstrom (1951) mentions finding feathers of immature rosebreasted grosbeaks beneath the plucking perch of a Cooper’s hawk. H. S. Peters (1936) lists two ifies as external parasites on the rosebreasted grosbeak. A. W. Blain (1948) includes this species in a list of birds injured or killed hitting “picture windows.” D. A. Zimmerman (1954) mentions two birds found dead on highways.

There seems to be no published record of one of these birds living for more than 11 years in a wild state, but Henry Nelirling (1896) says: “I knew of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak that was kept in perfect health for over fifteen years. All the white of the plumage had become in time a very beautiful rosy-red.” This was a captive bird. To which C. E. Smith adds: “M. M. Wernicke (1938) discusses a 15-year-old bird; A. C. Govan (1964) describes the death of a captive male at the age of 17}~ years and J. H. Ross (1942) writes of a male that was kept in captivity from the spring of 1928 to the fall of 1951, when it died in its 24th year.”

Fall: When the grosbeaks leave their summer homes on their fall migration, they are not as brilliantly colored as in the spring and are less conspicuous in their behavior. Taverner and Swales (1907) say that, while passing from Canada to the United States at Point Pelee, they “were very difficult to find, keeping well up in the tops of the high trees and hiding in the leaves, and the only indication of their presence was the sharp grosbeak click that occasionally came to us from somewhere overhead.”

Frederick C. Lincoln (1939) writes:

The route used by the Rose-breasted Grosbeak, which appears to belong chiefly to the Mississippi Flyway, presents an interesting variation in convergence. * * * The extreme width of the breeding range of this species, from theMaritime Provinces of Canada to central Alberta, is about 2500 miles. Nevertheless the migratory lin6s converge southwardly until the width of the lane narrows down to about 700 miles, where the grosbeaks leave the United States between eastern Texas and Apjalachicola Bay, Florida. Instead, however, of continuing to converge, the eastern and western limits of the migratory lane remain nearly parallel, so that the birds enter the northern part of their winter range in southern Mexico through a gate of about the same width. Further south, the tapering shape of Central America results in a greater concentration, reaching its extreme in the Isthmus of Panama. Rose-breasts that travel as far as South America spread out through Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador.

Winter: Alexander F. Skutch contributes the following: “With rare exceptions, the rose-breasted grosbeaks do not reach Central America until the middle of October. Carriker (1910) records a young male taken at Escazu in the Costa Rican highlands at the surprisingly early date of August 13, 1902, but my own earliest date of arrival is October 16, 1942, the locality being the basin of El General in southern Costa Rica. Soon the grosbeaks spread thinly over the entire region, settling down to spend the winter from Guatemala to Panamh, and from the lowlands of both coasts up to no less than 8,500 feet in the highlands, where they brave the heavy nocturnal frosts of the winter months. Although common as winter residents in only a few localities, they are more abundant in the highlands from 3,000 feet upward than in the warm lowlands, and in Guatemala than farther to the south in Costa Rica. Likewise they are more gregarious in the highlands, where I once counted 20 in a flock, than at lower altitudes, where it is exceptional to meet more than 3 or 4 together. ‘They frequent clearings and plantations with scattered trees and light or open woodland; but I have not met them in heavy lowland forest. They appear to avoid excessively wet districts such as the northern slopes of the Cordillera Central of Costa Rica.

“On the Hacienda ‘Chichavac’ at an altitude of about 8,500 feet in the mountains above Tecpkn in the Department of Chimaltenango in west-central Guatemala, rose-breasted grosbeaks often visited the vegetable garden beside the house, and its vicinity. Here I first met them in November 1930, and they were present when I returned at the beginning of 1933, when about 20 were counted. By March some of the males had put on their full nuptial attire, and were resplendent in white, black, and rose. The last of the flock departed on April 6. They remained absent for 634 months, returning on October 19, when I found three in the hedgerow at the far end of the garden, almost in the same spot where I had seen the last of the flock the preceding spring. Two were females modestly clad in bullybrown and grayish-white; their companion was a male attired almost as plainly &s they, but there was a tinge of rose on his white breast to remind me of the warm rosy shield that had covered it when he left in the spring, and his wings were conspicuously marked with black and white, in striking c~ rast to the general dullness of his dress. Without much doubt they were individuals who had passed the preceding winter in this garden, or their descendants; but who could tell in what far northern land they had made their nests, or what route they had followed and what districts they had passed over on their long southward journey, or what adventures befell them, or how long they had been on the way? “The three grosbeaks promptly began to eat their favorite seeds, those of the euphorbiaceous shrub Stihingia acutifohia. The foliage of this bush is said to be poisonous to cattle, deadly if eaten in quantity; but the grosbeaks seemed never to suffer any harm from the seeds. They crushed the thick, three-lobed pods in their heavy bills to extract the three small seeds, making a noise that I could bear at a good distance. They were also fond of the garden peas, to obtain which they perched beside one of the long fat pods, pecked a hole in its side, and removed the plump green seeds one by one. In eating these peas they were extremely fastidious, deftly biting the germ out from its tender green seed-coat and eating only the former, allowing the empty husk to fall to the ground. Sometimes they skillfully managed to extract the germ from its coat without detaching the seed, leaving the empty seed-coat in the empty pod. In favoring these peas they showed excellent judgment, for never have I tasted sweeter peas than these grown high in the mountains.

“The Indian gardener set up among the vines a scarecrow consisting of an inverted tin pail with a white rag tied around it for a head, and some old garment draped over a cross-bar for a body; but the birds were wholly indifferent to this palpable deception. With praiseworthy patience, the gardener stretched long strings completely around and diagonally across the pea patch, and tied the long, thick leaves of the yucca to them at intervals of a foot or less, so that dangling by their tips, they might sway in the wind and alarm the t.hieves; but this device also failed to serve its purpose. I who had heard the rose-breasted grosbeaks’ joyous music in the North thought them worthy of their epicurean fare and did not begrudge them their plunder; but I found it difficult to persuade to this point of view my neighbors who had never had an opportunity to hear the birds in song. At times these grosbeaks settled in a flock in the neighboring pasture, and hunted over the ground among the scattered straw.

“In January 1934 I found rose-breasted grosbeaks fairly numerous among the open woods on the Finca ‘MocA,’ a great coffee estate lying chiefly between 3,000 and 4,000 feet above sea level at the base of the VoleTh AtitThn on the Pacific slope of Guatemala. Many of the males then bore considerable rose on their breasts, but I saw none in full nuptial plumage so early in the year. Each evening a number of the grosbeaks went to roost, along with a motley crowd of small birds of other species both resident and migratory, in a dense clump of tall bamboos ju~t outside the room that I occupied, Where through the window I could watch them as I sat at my work table. They darted in among the compact foliage of the bamboos so quickly that I could not count them with accuracy, but probably 10 or 12 slept there every night.

“Early in February I once saw, in the Caribbean lowlands of Honduras, a male rose-breasted grosbeak who had practically completed the prenuptial molt and was splendidly attired in black, white, and rose. By the end of February males in nuptial dress are not rare, but others have ~carcely begun the molt. I have not often heard the song of the rose-breasted grosbeak in Central America, but from March 29 to April 5,1945, a male who had not quite completed his prenuptial molt sang repeatedly in the vicinity of my house in southern Costa Rica. In the middle of the afternoon, when the Gray’s thrushes were caroling blithely dn all sides, he would add his sweetly varied warble to the chorus. During the first half of April the last rose-breasted grosbeaks withdraw frqm Central America; my latest was seen in El General, Costa Rica, on April 15, 1937.

“Unfortunately, all the rose-breasted grosbeaks that come to tropical America do not return to the land of their birth, even if they remain alive over the winter months. All too many are trapped and kept in cages for their song and attractive plumage. Scarcely any other of the migrants from further north is more popular as a cage bird. The indigo bunting, the painted bunting, and a great variety of native birds share the same unhappy fate. One has only to travel in Latin America and witness how wild birds are held in captivity, often in a cage that scarcely allows them space to turn around, and subjected to all manner of abuses, such as remaining through the night beside an unshaded electric light bulb, to appreciate fully how great an advance the United States and Canada made when they prohibited the holding of native songbirds in captivity. It is distressing to anyone with sympathetic feeling for wild creatures to see them held in thrall; but there is something particularly exasperating in the sight of these migratory birds, which are given legal protection in the country of their birth, held captive in a foreign land. They are travelers whose passports have been dishonored, and there is no consulate to which they can appeal for redress.

Range: Central Canada (east of the Rocky Mountains) to Colombia and Venezuela.

Breeding range: The rose-breasted grosbeak breeds from northeastern British Columbia (Tupper Creek), northern Alberta (Slave River near Peace River), central Saskatchewan (Flotten Lake, Cumberland House), central western and south central Manitoba (The Pas, Lake St. Martin), western and southern Ontario (Malachi, North Bay), southwestern Quebec (Blue Sea Lake, Val Jalbert), northern New Brunswick (Jardin Brook), Prince Edward Island (Harmony Junction), and Nova Scotia (Whycocomagh) south to south central Alberta (Red Deer), southern Saskatchewan (Indian Head), central northern North Dakota (Minot), eastern South Dakota (Bijou Hills), eastern Nebraska (Long Pine Canyon, Red Cloud), eastern Kansas (Manhattan), central Oklahoma (Oklahoma City), southwestern and central Missouri (Freistatt, St. Louis), southern Illinois (Mount Carmel), central Indiana (Terre Haute, Peanville), northern Ohio (Paulding and Tuscarawas counties), eastern Kentucky (Black Mountain), eastern Tennessee (Johnson City, Stratton Bald), northern Georgia (Brasstown Bald), western North Carolina (Rocky Ridge, Boone), western Virginia (throughout mountains), southeastern Pennsylvania (Chestnut Hill), southwestern and central New Jersey (Militown), and southeastern New York (Dix Hills, Long Island). Recorded nesting once in Colorado (Longmont), and in southern Maryland (mouth of Governors Run, Calvert County).

Winter range: Winters from Michoac~n, San Luis Potosi (Xilitla), and southern Louisiana (rarely) south through southern Mexico, Central America, and northwestern South America to northern Ecuador (Sarayac6), southwestern Colombia (Villaviej a), and southwestern and central northern Venezuela (Bram6n, Maracay); rarely in western Cuba.

Casual records: Casual, chiefly in migration, west to California (now almost annually), Baj a California (Santo Tom~s), and Arizona (southwest to Castle Dome Mountains), and east to southeastern Quebec (Moisie River, Anticosti Island), Newfoundland (Tompkins), Bermuda, Watling Island, Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamiaca, Dominica, and Cura~ao.

Accidental in Greenland and in Ireland (County Antrim).

Migration: Early dates of spring arrival are: Guatemala: Guatemala City, March 21. Bermuda: St. Georges, April 15. Florida: Juno, March 25; Pensacola, April 2. Alabama: Dauphin Island, April 3. Georgia: Savannah, April 4. South Carolina: Spartanburg, April 18. North Carolina: Weavorville, April 15. Virginia: Alexandria, April 20; Blacksburg, April 24. West Virginia: Bluefleld, April 24. District of Columbia: April 17 (average of 20 years, May 4). Maryland: Baltimore County, April 8. Pennsylvania: Bethlehem, April 12; Beaver, April 24 (average of 22 years, May 1). New Jersey: Camden, April 4; Maplewood and Long Branch, April 23. New York: Northport, April 16; Cayuga and Oneida Lake basins, April 28 (median of 10 years, May 4). Connecticut: West Hartford, April 25; Portland, May 1 (average of 32 years, May 7.) Rhode Island: Providence, April 9. Massachusetts: Martha’s Vineyard, April 15 (median of 5 years, April 20). Vermont: St. Johnsbury, May 2. New Hampshire: Walpole and Monroe, May 3; New Hampton, May 4 (median of 21 years, May 8). Maine: Cumberland Mills, April 19; Springvale, April 27. Quebec: Montreal, April 28 (median of 20 years for Province of Quebec, May 10). New Brunswick: Grand Manan and St. Andrews, May 16. Nova Scotia: Port Joli, April 10; Bon Portage, April 15. Newfoundland: Tompkins, May 24. Louisiana: Shreveport, April 8; Grand Isle, April 16. Mississippi: Gulfport, April 15. Arkansas: Perryville, April 12. Tennessee: Knox County, April 3 (average, April 28); Nashville, April 15. Kentucky: Bowling Green, April 18. Missouri-St. Louis, April 12 (median of 13 years, April 26). Illinois: Murphysboro, April 12 (average, May 6); Urbana, April 22 (median of 20 years, April 30). Indiana: Bloomington, April 21. Ohio: Painesville, April 14; central Ohio, April 24 (median of 40 years, May 2); Oberlin, April 27 (average of 18 years, May 2). Michigan: Detroit, April 19 (mean of 10 years, April 22); Battle Creek, April 29 (median of 33 years, May 4). Ontario: Ottawa, May 8 (average of 20 years, May 13). Iowa: Nevada, April 21; Sioux City, April 26 (median, May 3). Wisconsin: Milwaukee, April 8; Kenosha and Wausau, April 10. Minnesota: Winona, April 25 (average of 31 years for northern Minnesota, May 4). Texas: Sinton, March 19 (median of 7 years, April 21). Oklahoma: Tulsa, April 8; Oklahoma City, April 25. Kansas: Mound City, April 18; median of 25 years for northeastern Kansas, May 2. Nebraska: Fairbury, April 17; Red Cloud, April 27 (median df 15 years, May 7). South Dakota: Yankton, April 20. North Dakota: Kenmare, May 5; Cass County, May 8 (average, May 14). Manitoba: Margaret, April 28; Aweme, May 12 (average of 14 years, May 16). Saskatchewan: McLean, April 17; Big River, May 1. New Mexico: Albuquerque, May 5. Colorado: Boulder, May 6. Wyoming: Torrington, May 11. California: Glendale, April 23. Alberta: Flagstaff, May 8. British Columbia: Tupper Creek, May 25.

Late dates of spring departure are: Colombia: Valparaiso, March 29. Costa Rica: San Isidro del General, April 15. Guatemala: Quirigua, April 7. El Salvador: Chilata, April 22. Oaxaca: Tutla, April 30. Veracruz: Jalapa, April 18. San Luis Potosi: Tamazunchale, April 29. Haiti: Poste Charbert, April 26. Bermuda-St. Georges, April 15. Florida: southern peninusla, May 23. Alabama: Auburn, May 23. Georgia: Atlanta, May 15. South CaroIina: Spartanburg, May 14. North Carolina: Raleigh, May 13. Virginia: Charlottesville, May 22. West Virginia: Fairmont, May 20. District of Columbia: June 3. Maryland: Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, June 2 (median of 7 years, May 20). Louisiana: New Orleans, May 14. Mississippi: Rosedale, May 22. Arkansas-Monticello, May 23. Tennessee: Knox County, May 23 (average, May 11). Kentucky: Bowling Green, May 15. Illinois: Chicago, June 2 (average of 16 years, May 24). Ohio: Buckeye Lake, May 26 (median, May 23). Michigan: Belding, June 3. Texas: Tyler, May 30. Oklahoma: Cleveland County, May 22. New Mexico-Clayton, June 6.

Early dates of fall arrival are: South Dakota: Milbank, August 30. Kansas: Overland Park, September 1. Texas: Midland, September 28. Iowa: Sioux City, August 15. Ontario: Presquile, AugusC 10. Michigan: Marquette, July 28. Ohio: Lakewood, August 10; Buckeye Lake, August 20 (median, September 8). Indiana: Chesterton, August 3. Illinois: Chicago, August 6 (average of 15 years, August 21). Tennessee-Knox County, August 10 (average, September 17). Massachusetts: Worcester, August 21; Essex County, August 25. New York: Oneonta, August 20. New Jersey: Cape May, August 20. Pennsylvania: State College, August 12. Maryland: White Marsh, August 20; Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, August 28 (median of 14 years, September 9). District of Columbia: August 29 (average of 14 years, September 4). Virginia: Rockbridge County, August 25. North Carolina: North Wilkesboro, September 10. South Carolina: Clemson College, October 1. Georgia: Athens, September 15. Alabama: Gadsden, August 28. Florida: Pensacola, August 30; Tallahassee, September 6. Bermuda: Hamilton, October 2. Oaxaca: Tapanatepec, October 19. Guatemala: Guatemala City, September 29. Costa Rica-San Jose, October 3. Ecuador: Calacali, October 10.

Late dates of fall departure are: California: Palm Springs, September 10. Alberta: Glenevis, September 1. Saskatchewan: Regina, September 9. Manitoba: Winnipeg area, October 21; Aweme, September 19 (average of 23 years, September 5). North Dakota: Cass County, October 5 (average, August 31). South Dakota: Milbank, October 16. Nebraska: Blue Springs, October 5. Kansas: northeastern Kansas, October 1 (median of 8 years, September 13). Oklahoma: September 26. Texas: Cove, November 7. Minnesota: Minneapolis: St. Paul, November 24 (mean of 14 years for southern Minnesota, September 18); Itasca County, November 20. Wiseonsin: Oconomowoc, October 26. Iowa: Liscomb, October 6; Sioux City, October 2 (median of 38 years, September 25). Ontario: Toronto, October 14; Ottawa, October 1. Michigan: Midland, November 15; Battle Creek, September 24 (median of 18 years, October 11); Detroit area, October 14 (mean of 10 years, October 11). Ohio: Canton, November 2; central Ohio, October 21 (average of 40 years, October 2); Lucas County, October 21 (mean of 12 years, October 2). Indiana: New Castle, October 30; Wayne County, October 10 (median of 9 years, October 4). Illinois: Beach, November 12; Chicago, November 9 (average of 15 years, September 23). Missouri: St. Louis, October 18 (median of 13 years, September 28). Kentucky: Bowling Green, October 31. Tennessee: Elizabethton, December 1; Knox County, October 18 (average, October 12). Arkansas: Winslow region, October 14. Mississippi: Saucier, October 19; Rosedale, October 12 (median of 21 years, October 5). Louisiana: Baton Rouge, October 25. Nova Scotia: Shelburne, December 15; West Middle Sable, September 17. New Brunswick: Fredericton, September 23. Quebec: Phiipsburg, October 22 (median of 20 years for Province of Quebec, September 14). Maine: Winthrop, October 12. New Hampshire: Dover, December 2; New Hampton, October 24 (median of 21 years, September 20). Vermont: Wells River, November 12. Massachusetts: Adams, November 8; Ipswich, November 1. Rhode Island: Block Island, October 22. Connecticut: Westport, October 8. New York: Cayuga and Oneida Lake basins, November 12 (median of 13 years, October 9); Central Park, November 5. New Jersey: Fairlawn, October 12. Pennsylvania: Rush, October 24; State College, October 19. Maryland: Allegany County, November 25; Montgomery County, November 23. District of Columbia: October 16 (average of 14 years, October 1). West Virginia: Bluefield, October 24. Virginia: Rockbridge County, November 14; Hampton, November 12. North Carolina: Weavervile, October 25. South Carolina: Clemson College, October 15. Georgia: Atlanta, October 30; Grady County, October 25. Alabama: Gadsden, November 5; Courtland, November 1. Florida: southern peninsula, November 12; northwestern Florida, November 11. Bermuda: Hamilton, October 16. Bahamas: Watlings Island, October 20. Cuba: October 13. Guatemala: Guatemala City, November 2.

Egg dates: Jllinois: 41 records, May 17 to July 10; 24 records, May 23 to June 7. Iowa: 3 records, May 29 to June 3.

Maryland: 10 records, May 27 to June 13; 6 records, May 31 to June 10.

Massachusetts: 55 records, May 22 to July 2; 32 records, May 25 to June 7.

Michigan: 24 records, May 23 to June 30; 15 records, May 28 to June 8.

Minnesota: 22 records, May 22 to June 25; 12 records, May 27 to June 5.

New Brunswick: 4 records, June 8 to June 19.

Ontario: 34 records, May 10 to June 24; 17 records, May 30 to June 8.

Rhode Island: 29 records, May 23 to June 15; 17 records, May 29 to June 6.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

Let others know your thoughts or ask an expert

Would you like to get new articles of birds (Once a month?)

No SPAM! We might only send you fresh updates once a month

Thank you for subscribing!

No thanks! I prefer to follow BirdZilla on Facebook