One of the first Neotropical migrants to arrive in southern New York every spring is the Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus). In late April, this species completes its journey from its winter range (Mexico south to Ecuador) to our area, announcing its arrival with an enthusiastic-sounding, liquid, robin-like song. A common breeding species in the area, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks frequent open woods, wood edges, orchards, and yards with deciduous shade trees and shrubs. They will sometimes visit feeders, often for sunflower seeds.
The name “grosbeak” comes from the French word grosbec, meaning “large beak,” and indeed both sexes of this species have a large, stubby, powerful bill, colored a dull, pale pink. This bill, designed for crushing the shells of seeds, is capable of exerting tremendous pressure on anything it clamps down on, as anyone unfortunate enough to have had a reason to handle a Rose-breasted Grosbeak can vouch for. (I can tell you that taking one out of a mist net is an experience not soon forgotten.) Beyond the birdbander-scarring bill they share, the male and female bear little resemblance to each other, and might easily be mistaken for two separate species.
The male is a boldly patterned bird, mostly black and white, with a black head, throat, and back. The upper surfaces of the wings are black with two white wing bars and a crescent-shaped white patch at the base of the primary flight feathers. This patch is quite noticeable in flight, though it is mostly concealed when the bird’s wings are folded. The tail is mostly black with some white in the outer tail feathers. The rump and underparts are mostly white, except for a buffy area on the flanks with some fine dark streaking, and a triangular, bright pinkish-red patch on its breast. The bird in flight reveals equally startling pinkish-red wing linings. Together, the male’s bright colors, thick bill, and rather stubby wings vaguely remind me of a small parrot.
The female’s upper-parts are mostly brown, with fine, darker-brown streaking extending down the back and wings. Her under-parts are mostly white with fine dark brown streaking extending from the throat down to the belly. Two thick whitish streaks extend back from the bill across the head on either side of the brown auricular (the “ear-patch”). The only showy aspect of the female’s plumage is her yellow wing linings, only visible in flight. Perhaps her most distinctive trait is that, unlike most other female songbirds, she occasionally sings (in the vast majority of bird species, only the male sings). Both sexes frequently give a distinctive call note, a squeaky “eek,” often aptly compared to the sound of basketball sneakers on a gym floor.
Though common and seemingly conspicuously patterned (if only the males), this species is often overlooked by casual observers, perhaps because it spends much of its time in the foliage of trees and shrubs. But the Rose-breasted Grosbeak, a unique and striking part of our spring’s avifauna, is well worth a special effort to find it.
Rose-breasted Grosbeaks will forage on wild fruits, seeds, and insects. Plant a variety of native plants to attract these beautiful birds.