Wildlife Portfolio of the Western National Parks
NPS Logo



THE BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK is generally conceded to be one of the best singers amongst the birds in the West. An excellent field character of the male is his outstanding rollicking song. The female is much quieter. The three or four young grosbeaks which fill the nest are always hungry and require a predigious amount of food.

The outstanding color characters of the adult male are the black head; black, white, and brown-streaked back; the broad white patch in each wing; and the cinnamon brown under parts, becoming lemon yellow on the belly. In the female and the young, the black of the adult male is represented largely by brown; however, they have the two characteristic white patches on the wings, as well as the broad streak above and below the eye. (See illustration.) The male, which is slightly larger than the female, has a length of about 7 inches; wing about 4 inches; and tail about 3 inches. When observed at close quarters, a certain identification is the heavy, short, but powerful bill which gives the bird its name and is very useful in the bird's gathering and eating certain seeds.

The nest is a loose platform of sticks and fine rootlets, and is so flimsily made that I have, at times, been able to see the eggs through the bottom. In spite of the fact that the grosbeak usually places its nest in brush or in the lower branches of a tree near the ground, I have rarely known one to be dislodged through the movement of the branches by violent winds. The eggs, however, sometimes roll out of their shallow nest.

In both Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks the grosbeaks are quick to make friends with campers. Some become so tame that they will alight on a table or sit at arm's length on a chair and share a meal with the camper, even though the person may be a total stranger. These birds are especially fond of fruit, such as ripe peaches, apricots, and cherries. In one instance, at Yosemite, I had a friend who left a piece of watermelon standing on the table during a short absence. When he came back he found two grosbeaks sitting on the rind which was about all that was left.

This songster is a summer visitant in the West and spends its winters in Central America. Its arrival late in the spring, announced by its clear song, is always a red-letter day for the bird lover. Its departure in the fall is much less noticeable. It is here one day and gone the next.


<<< Previous <<< Contents>>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 01-Jul-2010