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Common Name: Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Scientific Name: Pheucticus ludovicianus

(Information for this species page was gathered in part by Samantha Bear for Biology 220W at Penn State New Kensington in Spring 2009)

The rose-breasted grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus)is a stout-bodied, medium sized (seven to seven and a half inches long) bird. It is a member of the cardinal family (Cardinalidae) of the songbird order (Passeriformes). The name “grosbeak” marks one of the species’ most observable features, its large, usually gray, conical beak.

male and female rose-breasted grosbeak - image credit Deborah Sillman
Image credit: Deborah Sillman

Males (above, left) and females of this species are very similar in size and, of course, in beaks. They are, however, so different in coloration that they are frequently mistaken for different species. The male is boldly marked with a black head and back, a white breast and belly, and an intensely red, triangularly shaped patch on his chest. His wings are also black and highlighted with white bars and crescent-shaped, white patches. The female, on the other hand, epitomizes camouflaging colors and patterns. She is brown on her head and back with a lighter breast and belly and covered with streaks of darker brown. She also has white wing bars, a broad, white eye stripe, and stripes on the top of her head. She looks like a super-sized sparrow and blends easily into the brown colors of her wooded habitats.

The rose-breasted grosbeak lives in deciduous forests and is especially found in open, secondary growth woodlands. It is frequently seen on forest edges, along streams, and in thick, shrubby ecotones. It makes a cup-shaped nest out of twigs and plant stalks. These nests may be located anywhere from five to twenty-five feet above the ground.

Rose-breasted grosbeaks eat a wide variety of foods. Their robust beaks are very efficient at crushing hard seeds and hard bodied insects (like beetles).Slightly more than half of their diet are insects and slightly less than half are seeds, fruits, buds, and flowers.

The rose-breasted grosbeak has two types of vocalizations. The first is called the “warble” which is frequently described as a more musical version of the familiar robin song. The warble is sung by males both from perches and during flight as they establish their breeding territory and attempt to attract a mate. The second is the “chink” call which has been likened to the sound of a tennis shoe squeaking on a gym floor. The chink is used in a variety of situations including responding to mating warbles and as alarm calls.

Mating and Reproduction
The rose-breasted grosbeak overwinters in southern Mexico, the West Indies, Central America, and northern and northwestern South America (Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador, and Peru). It returns to its northern breeding territories (the northeast and northern Midwest United States and southern Canada into Alberta and British Columbia) in late April to mid-May. Males arrive first and establish their breeding territories. Females are courted by warbling songs and also by an energetic dance in which the male crouches, spreads and lowers his wings, spreads his tail feathers, and retracts his head. Breeding pairs stay together for a single season but seem to be monogamous during this period. Vigorous flying, chasing, and, eventually, mating follows the variable courtship rituals. After mating, the male and the female build their nest together.

The female lays three to five eggs (green-blue with brown markings) and both the male and the female take turns incubating them. The eggs hatch in thirteen or fourteen days and the nestlings fledge in nine to twelve days. The nestlings and the fledglings are fed by both parents for about three weeks. After the fledges are weaned, in good resource and mild climate years, the parental pair may produce a second clutch of eggs.

Eggs and nestlings of the rose-breasted grosbeaks may be eaten by a variety of opportunistic predators (including red and gray squirrels, common grackles, blue jays etc.). Cowbirds also parasitize their nests especially nests placed at lower heights or in more open locations. Habitat loss (both in summer and winter territories) and nest parasitism have reduced the numbers of rose-breasted grosbeaks, but they are still abundant in our woodlands and are not considered to be threatened or endangered.

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