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Rose-Breasted Grosbeak Facts, Pictures, and Migration

Updated on February 14, 2017
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Eric is an amateur birder and photographer who is amazed by the natural world just about every day.

The Rose-breasted Grosbeak is a beautiful backyard visitor during the summer months.
The Rose-breasted Grosbeak is a beautiful backyard visitor during the summer months.

The Rose-Breasted Grosbeak

The migration of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak may go unnoticed by some northerners. Many of us in the cooler climes of North America celebrate the arrival of the first American Robin each spring. But there is another visitor who comes on the heels of the Robin, one you might miss if you aren’t paying attention.

The Rose-breasted Grosbeak is a true harbinger of spring, a traveler from a tropical land, and when it returns from its winter grounds we can be assured the warm weather is right behind it. Some people may not know the name of this black-and-white bird with the red patch on its chest, but it is one of the prettiest and best-traveled songbirds in North America.

This bird spends the snowy season in Mexico and Central America, and some even find their way to the Caribbean, but in the springtime they return to their temperate breeding grounds.

In the summer they spend much of their time looking for insects, but if you keep an eye out you will see them at your bird feeder as well. In fact, if you take take some simple steps to make your backyard more bird-friendly you should see the them coming around quite often.

In this article you'll find some interesting facts about the Rose-breasted Grosbeak, as well as pictures to help to identify males and females, information on the Rose-breasted Grosbeak migration, and tips for attracting them to your backyard.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak Male in Summer Plumage
Rose-breasted Grosbeak Male in Summer Plumage

Male and Female Identification

The male and female of the species look like two very different type birds. Both are about eight inches tall, and both with heavy bills, but there the similarities begin to wither.

The male dons a vibrant black-and-white plumage with a bright red spot on his chest, while the female is more subdued shades of brown and white. Non-breeding males, too, are brown and white, with just a hint of the rose coloring on their chest.

During the overwinter period both sexes appear as drab versions of their summer selves.

Rose-beasted Grosbeak Female in Spring
Rose-beasted Grosbeak Female in Spring

Attracting the Rose-Breasted Grosbeak to Your Yard

As an insect-eater this bird most often finds its dinner while hunting in the branches of trees. It loves big-bodied insects like beetles, caterpillars, gypsy moths and grubs, but its heavy beak is made for munching up foods much tougher than the average bug. It will consume a wide variety of seeds found throughout its natural range, and will be happy to check out what you’re offering in your feeder.

The Rose-breasted Grosbeak will be a shy but reliable visitor to you bird feeder in the summer months. Serve high-quality black-oil sunflower seeds in a good mix and you’ll see these guys coming around in no time. This is a bird that falls somewhere between the small and medium-size range, so platform and hopper feeders are optimal and will allow it easy access to the seed.

However, it can manage with tube feeders intended for smaller perching birds when necessary, and (at least in my backyard) has shown a fair aptitude for problem solving when it can’t quite get to the seed it wants.

Since it is such a timid species, consider posting several feeders in order to alleviate congestion and encourage it to come in for seed. Once it discovers a reliable seed source it will be back repeatedly.

Like many songbird species, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak will happily make use of water features such as a birdbath.

Take care to note the female when she visits, as her coloring may cause you to misidentify her at first.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak Female at Feeder
Rose-breasted Grosbeak Female at Feeder

Classification

The Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianusis) is a member of the Cardinal family (Cardinalidae) and subdivided to the genus Pheucticus. Like the Northern Cardinal, it is a passerine, or perching bird, what we more often think of as a songbird. Despite the relative rarity of sightings as compared to its Cardinal cousin, it is not a threatened species and is fairly abundant throughout its range.

This “grosbeak” designation can be a bit befuddling. Some misidentify this bird as a member of the finch family (Fringillidae). Indeed, they do look somewhat like large finches, particularly the females and non-breeding males. But this designation is not technically correct. There are a few species referred to as “grosbeak” within the finch family, but the Rose-breasted Grosbeak and its direct relatives are not among them.

There are several different grosbeaks of the Cardinal family throughout North America, and each occupies its own niche in a different geographical areas.

The Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak at a Bird Feeder

Other Grosbeaks and Related Species

As mentioned above, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak is not closely related to finches, but is in fact a member of the Cardinal family. This makes it kin to the widely known Northern Cardinal as well as more obscure species such as the Pyrrhuloxia (Desert Cardinal) of Mexico and Southern Texas, the Dickcissel of the central United States, and the various Bunting species found in North America.

Other relatives include:

  • Black-headed Grosbeak: A bird that is common to the western parts of the United States during breeding months, and overwinters in Mexico. Because of overlapping territories in some areas of the Great Plains, interbreeding sometimes occurs between Rose-breasted and Black-headed Grosbeaks.
  • Blue Grosbeak: A beautiful deep-blue colored bird, distinguished from the related Indigo Bunting by its heavy bill. This bird is common to the south-central and southeastern parts of the United States, and shares an overwinter area with the Rose-breasted Grosbeak in Mexico and Central America.

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak in Apple Tree
Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak in Apple Tree

Habitat and Nesting

Deciduous forests and mixed woodlands are preferred habitat during the summer months, but the Rose-breasted Grosbeak also does well in rural areas with sporadic human habitation. Backyard feeders are helpful, but due to its diverse diet this bird can do just fine regardless of human influence.

As a migratory bird, the extra calories from bird feeders can help to build energy reserves for the long flight south as well as provide easy sources of sustenance along the way.

In its summer habitat it will build a nest off the ground made primarily of twigs. Woodlands with a stream or field nearby are common nesting sites, with a fair buffer between the nest and human habitation. Swampy areas are often preferred above dry forests. The nest may be several feet off the ground, or as high a fifty feet.

Breeding males first establish a territory, often returning to the same area each year. They then attract a female with their bright red breasts and striking black-and-white contrast, and the pair remains together for the duration of the season. The male will help with the construction of the nest and even do his part for the incubation of the eggs, giving the female a reprieve from time to time.

A clutch of three to five eggs will hatch out in about 13 days, and within two weeks the chicks will leave the nest. Like most birds, they’ll follow their parents around for a little while until they get the hang of things.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak Male at Bird Bath
Rose-breasted Grosbeak Male at Bird Bath

Migration and Overwintering

In the summer (breeding) months the Rose-breasted Grosbeak will spend its time in the North American forests and scrublands, with a range throughout much of the Northeastern part of the continent.The males will arrive in mid-spring and are soon followed by the females a few weeks later.

This is the time for those of us in the North to spot this busy traveler while we can. It only stays in its northern range for short periods of time, perhaps only three months in some areas, possibly as long as five in its southern breeding range.

By September it is time to fly south for the winter again, on a return trip that allows it to avoid the cold weather. It’s a pretty smart bird, when you think about it!

For the overwinter period the Rose-breasted Grosbeak will settle into the tropical regions of southern Mexico, the Caribbean, South and Central America. During the winter it prefers forests and may flock in loose groups. They will consume fruits and nectars as a larger percentage of their food sources, in addition to the usual seeds and insects. While somewhat territorial in their breeding territory, they are much more tolerant of each other in their winter grounds.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak Migration Patterns
Rose-breasted Grosbeak Migration Patterns | Source

The Long Flight South

The Rose-breasted Grosbeak is an interesting and enigmatic voyager, a visitor from another world here in our part of the country for a short time each year before it moves along and forgets all about us. Like the Robins, when the day comes that you realize these birds are no longer coming around you know that winter is on the way. Unlike us, they have the common sense to leave with the summer, and follow the warm weather south.

So, as the snow starts to fall, and the temperatures plummet, imagine the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks you observed over the past summer. While you shiver, they bask in the sun. While you shovel, they enjoy tropical fruits and nectar. While you curse the snow, the sleet and the freezing rain, they are bathed by warm showers and ocean breezes.

On second thought, maybe it’s better not to think about it. It’s far too depressing to be jealous of a bird!

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks in Your Backyard

Does the Rose-breasted Grosbeak come to your yard?

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    • profile image

      Ray H 3 weeks ago

      I have many that appear in spring , they arrive like a wild motorcycle gang , they stay till late August .

      They are a magnificent song bird , one distinct bird stands out from the others he has a distinct black feathered band that crosses his red breast , He has been visiting my feeder for at least four summers , I look forward to them arriving.

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      John Kakos 2 months ago

      The Red Breasted Grosbeaks have been visiting our feeders for the last 6 years. They found my Black Sunflower and Safflower seed mix to their liking.I can tell when they are ready to head south{from the North East Ohio area. By the way load up on their visits. They stick around for about 2 months . Then head south. They are very calm and patient bird.

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      Novice 3 months ago

      Was hiking in Mont Orford National park in Quebec today and saw one. So beautiful! Never have seen pone before!

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      jerimoo 3 months ago

      I live in NH and saw one for the first time ever tonight. We have several feeders with a choice of quality seed. He was strikingly beautiful so I had to look up to find out what it was. I hope he stays around for the rest of summer

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      Laura Happ 4 months ago

      The past few years I have noticed the Rose Breasted Grosbeak coming to our feeders here in northern Bucks

      county, PA. I thought it was a beautiful bird and noticed he enjoyed my Lyric fruit and nut seed mix and chickadee seed. Also the suet cubes and the birdbath. They stayed only a few weeks. The following year more came and they stayed longer. I then noticed the females with the males. I made sure my feeders were full with the good seeds and nuts they like. This year, so far, they have been here since May 1 and it is May 23. I am hoping I can convince them to raise their young here this summer. We have a rural property of 11 acres with 5 acres of woodlands containing a stream. Hopefully they will build nests and remain here a little longer since we enjoy seeing them each year!

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      Jan 4 months ago

      We always look foreword to the arrival of them. Throughout the years their stays have varied from a couple of days to a couple of weeks. This year we enjoyed 3 couples for 3 Weeks! It was wonderful! A few years back we had 5 of both males and females. We are located in Southern Indiana.

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      Ben Heiselmoyer 4 months ago

      Great article! I found the part regarding their name 'grosbeak' and how some people find it confusing interesting. Is the term grosbeak Germanic? The German word 'Groß' (pronounced Gross) mean big or large. Perhaps that has something to do with the name.

      Happy Birding,

      Ben Heiselmoyer

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      pinetr 4 months ago

      have 50 or more at feeders ,northern wi

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      boltville 4 months ago

      I am in London, Ontario, Canada. We have had a Red Breasted Grosbeak here the last 2 days eating out of our hanging flat feeder. It has black oil, peanuts and large shelled grain. He loves it. Last year we had the Yellow and Red Breasted Grosbeaks and their mates here. I am looking forward to seeing the female soon as well as the Yellow ones.

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      CinJo 4 months ago

      In NW Indiana, they hang around for a couple of weeks and then move on. Usually when we see the orioles, the grosbeaks aren't far behind. I'm so excited every year to see their return! I just keep buying seed - my family doesn't need to eat, right??!!

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      Sandra 4 months ago

      I live in Central Mississippi and had my first ever Rose Breasted Grosbeak last week. Gorgeous!!

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      Gail 4 months ago

      I saw my first rose-breasted grosbeak on May 6,'17 in Hebron, KY very near Bobby in Erlanger, Ky. Today two males and at least one female spent the day visiting my feeders. Hard to know exactly how many females visited because of the large number of female purple finches. Hopefully they will stay throughout the summer. :)

    • EricDockett profile image
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      Eric Dockett 4 months ago from USA

      That's awesome, Bobbie! Hopefully they'll like your feeder and stick around a while.

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      Bobbie 4 months ago

      I live in Erlanger, Kentucky just south of Cincinnati, Ohio. i saw my first rose-breasted grosbeak last year. The male came only 1 day to feed and the female came the next day. I never saw them again and the folks at Wild Birds Unlimited told me I was blessed because it is rare to see them in our area if at all. Today 5/5/2017 I was blessed again. I had 3 males and 2 females at my platform feeder. It is a seed mix that contains black oil sunflower seeds and peanuts along with other seeds. I hope they come back tomorrow when the rain is gone so I can get some good pictures.

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      Have one at my feeder 4 months ago

      For the first time ever, I had a rose breast grosbeak at my feeder yesterday..and he was back again today! I have peanut feeders and have feeders with shelled sunflowers. He was eating both! I have feeders in front and back of the house. He moved from one to the other. Hop he finds a mate and stays.

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      Carole 4 months ago

      I saw one male and two females May 2, 2017. They stopped for some sunflower seeds on our back steps. I live in the deep south Mississippi. So beautiful!

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      Eric Dockett 4 months ago from USA

      @Mia: That's awesome! You should see them year-round, so if you put up a feeder they will keep coming around.

      @Dechols: You must have spotted one on his journey north. Who knows were he'll end up!

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      Dechols 4 months ago

      I live in Southeast Texas and I saw my first male Rose breasted Grosbeak. I have lived at this location for 21 years and this was my first. He was so pretty.

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      Mia 4 months ago

      Saw first one here in Ohio yesterday! Also first Baltimore oriole!

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      Eric Dockett 5 months ago from USA

      Hi Stormy: Possibly passing through, but you could have some summer residents as well. I have not seen one yet here in the Northeast, but expecting them soon!

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      stormy 5 months ago

      I have seen a Rose-breasted Grosbeak under my bird feeder for the past two days and I did not know they were in this area. I live near Memphis, TN so maybe it is just passing through.

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      Udayveer 2 years ago from India

      Interesting!!!! Keep it up