The male Rose-breasted Grosbeak is strikingly beautiful. But it has a gruesome folk name: “cut-throat,” owing to the red swatch across its breast. The name “grosbeak” comes from the French term grosbec, meaning “large beak”— an obvious attribute of this bird, the Black-headed Grosbeak, and others, including the closely related Northern Cardinal.
Like such species as the Bobolink and Summer Tanager, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak exhibits strong sexual dimorphism — the male and female sport very different plumages. One of North America's most distinctive songbirds, the male is a study in contrasts, with a jet-black head, back, and wings, white belly and rump, and of course the triangular red breast patch. In flight, splashes of white flash on wings and tail. The female, on the other hand, resembles a large female Purple Finch — brown-backed and streaky — as does the female of its western “cousin” the Black-headed Grosbeak. Male Rose-breasted and Black-headed Grosbeaks, on the other hand, are entirely different colors, save for their wing patterns and black heads.
A fairly common denizen of the deciduous woodlands of northern North America, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak retreats to the tropics in winter, where it is often found in flocks feeding on fruiting trees such as the Gumbo-Limbo.
You might think a small songbird might not live long, but one wild Rose-breasted Grosbeak was 12 years old (as recorded after recovery by banders), while a captive individual apparently lived twice that long.
Wherever it roams, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak seeks the shelter and bounty of leafy tree canopies. It is rarely seen low down, unless visiting a bird bath, stream, or, on occasion, a bird feeder. Typically, the grosbeak remains hidden in the foliage, only grudgingly coming into plain view for birders.
Songs and Sounds
Like the Black-capped Chickadee, Steller's Jay, and many other birds, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak's presence can be easily detected before the bird comes into view, thanks to its distinctive call. In the case of this grosbeak, both genders emit a piercing “eek!” call (see below), which keeps the bird in contact with others of its kind. Although just one note, this call is distinctive, sounding very much like a sneaker squeaking on a polished gymnasium floor.
This bird also has a sweet, robin-like song sometimes characterized as sounding like a tipsy thrush.
Breeding and Feeding
Rose-breasted Grosbeaks usually nest in deciduous trees and sometimes high up in large shrubs. There, the female lays one to five, but most often four, greenish blue, rusty-spotted eggs. These are laid in an open-cup nest made of twigs, grasses, stalks, stems, and dead leaves and lined with finer materials including hair. Both male and female Rose-breasted Grosbeaks share incubation, brooding, and feeding duties at the nest. Typically, only one brood is raised, although at times if a brood is lost, a second nesting attempt follows.
Unlike many birds, both male and female Rose-breasted Grosbeaks sing — sometimes even while on the nest!
Although its thick, seed-cracking bill might lead you to believe this bird is a strict vegetarian, it's very much an omnivore. Up to half of its diet consists of insects, spiders, small snails, and other invertebrates, and like most other songbirds, that's all it feeds its protein-needy young. Adults also seek out a wide range of seasonal plant offerings. These include a bounty of late summer, fall, and wintering-ground berries and small fruits on various trees (including palms and jacarandas), shrubs, and vines. They also consume many seeds, including black oil seeds from feeders, as well as some buds and flowers.
Region and Range
The Rose-breasted Grosbeak's breeding range stretches across much of the North American area dominated by temperate deciduous forest, from southern Newfoundland west to southern Northwest Territories in Canada, then down through the Midwest and Northeast of the U.S. In the Appalachians, the breeding range flares southward to Georgia's northern border. During migration, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak is found throughout the U.S. east of the Rockies.
Needing Leafy Landscapes
As mentioned above, this bird is an international traveler. It winters from central Mexico south to Ecuador, and some even reach Peru. A good number pass through the Caribbean during migration, and some remain to winter in the Bahamas, Cuba, and on some other islands. In its wintering range, this songbird occurs in many habitats, including in disturbed areas with fruiting trees, on shade-coffee plantations, and along the edges of dry, semi-humid, and humid tropical forests.
Wintering Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are often seen in small groups, often associated with mixed-species feeding flocks. In regions including the highlands of Guatemala, flocks of up to several dozen birds can be seen. This bird is a rare vagrant to the Galápagos Islands, the United Kingdom, and other out-of-range places.
The Rose-breasted Grosbeak population remains robust but is in decline, according to the conservation consortium Partners in Flight. These birds face several threats: They are often trapped for sale as cage birds throughout their winter range. Also, widespread deforestation, especially where they migrate and winter, likely takes a toll as well.
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ABC and partners including Fundación ProAves in Colombia have established reserves, including the Cerulean Warbler Conservation Corridor. These areas provide winter habitat for the Rose-breasted Grosbeak; Cerulean and Golden-winged Warblers; and resident birds like the Gorgeted Wood-Quail.
Rose-breasted Grosbeaks also face the same threats many other bird species do, such as predation from outdoor cats and mortality from collisions with windows and buildings. ABC has a number of programs in place to reduce these threats, including our Cats Indoors program, which encourages pet owners to keep cats and birds safe, and our Glass Collisions program. Explore solutions to keep birds from hitting windows.
Policies enacted by the U.S. Congress and federal agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have a huge impact on migratory birds. You can help shape these rules for the better by telling lawmakers to prioritize birds, bird habitat, and bird-friendly measures. To get started, visit ABC's Action Center.
Living a bird-friendly life can have an immediate impact on migratory birds in the United States. Doing so can be as easy as adding native plants to your garden, avoiding pesticides, and keeping cats indoors. To learn more, visit our Bird-Friendly Life page.
American Bird Conservancy and our Migratory Bird Joint Venture partners have improved conservation management on more than 8.5 million acres of U.S. bird habitat — an area larger than the state of Maryland — over the last ten years. That's not all: With the help of international partners, we've established a network of more than 100 areas of priority bird habitat across the Americas, helping to ensure that birds' needs are met during all stages of their lifecycles. These are monumental undertakings, requiring the support of many, and you can help by making a gift today.