Rose-breasted grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus)

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderPasseriformes
FamilyCardinalidae
GenusPheucticus (1)
SizeLength: 18 - 21.5 cm (2) (3)
Wingspan: 29 - 33 cm (3)
Weight39 - 49 g (2) (3)
Top facts

The rose-breasted grosbeak is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The rose-breasted grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) is a medium-sized, stocky songbird with a beautiful, bold plumage (2) (3) which varies greatly between the sexes (2). The male rose-breasted grosbeak has gained the name ‘cut-throat’ from its distinctive breeding plumage, which has a vivid pink-red triangle on the breast, strongly contrasting with the black upperparts and white underparts (2) (3) (4). There are white spots on the outer feathers of the tail (3), which is otherwise black above and white below. The rump is usually white, but can occasionally be pink with dark markings (3).

The male rose-breasted grosbeak has large white patches on its wings (3) (5), as well as red markings on the underside of the wing (3), which are visible when the bird is in flight (4). The non-breeding male is similar in appearance (3) (5), but it has buff tips to the black feathers on the upperparts, brown-speckled underparts, and buff stripes on the head and face (2) (3) (5). The pink-red breast also becomes duller when the male is not in its breeding plumage (2) (3).

In contrast to the male, the female rose-breasted grosbeak has brown plumage which is extensively streaked olive-brown and black on the upperparts, breast and along the sides of the body (2) (3) (4). The paler underparts are also heavily streaked (2) (4). The female rose-breasted grosbeak has distinct pale and dark stripes along its crown and pale ‘eyebrow’ lines above its brown face (2) (3), while the neck, breast and sides of the body are cream or buff and the rump is olive-brown (3). Like the male red-breasted grosbeak, the female also has white wingbars (2) (3), but the markings on the underside of the wings are yellow-orange rather than red (3) (4).

The bill of both sexes is large, thick and cone-shaped and varies in colouration between pink-white and slate-grey (2) (3), with the bill of the female usually being pinker than that of the male. The eyes of the rose-breasted grosbeak are dark brown and its legs and feet are grey-blue, brown or black (2).

The juvenile rose-breasted grosbeak is similar in appearance to the adult female (2) (3), but the wings and tail are usually browner, the breast is buff, and it is less heavily streaked overall (3). The juvenile’s sex can be determined at just five days old, depending on the colour of the markings underneath the wings, which are much paler than in the adults (2).

The call of the rose-breasted grosbeak can vary between a sharp, squeaky ‘eek’ (2) (4) and a distinctive metallic ‘chink’ (2). The song of this species is often compared to the song of an American robin (Turdus migratorius), but as sung by an opera singer in a slow, melodic warble (3).

The breeding range of the rose-breasted grosbeak extends from British Colombia in western Canada to the eastern United States. In winter, this species migrates to the southern United States, the Caribbean, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru. It can also sometimes be found as a vagrant in Greenland and parts of Europe (2) (6).

The rose-breasted grosbeak is mainly found in deciduous and mixed woodland, as well as parks, gardens and golf courses. Within these areas it is found around the edges of the woodland, in second-growth woodland and in open and semi-open areas (2) (3).

In winter, this species migrates to the tropical forests in the south of its range (3). In certain parts of its range, the rose-breasted grosbeak is found up to elevations of 3,800 metres (5). 

The diet of the rose-breasted grosbeak varies between seasons, with a higher percentage of insect prey, including beetles, ants and butterfly and moth larvae, being taken during the breeding season. In winter, a higher percentage of seeds, fruits and buds are taken, including elderberries, blackberries, raspberries and weed seeds. Some plant material is also eaten in the breeding season (2).

At the beginning of the breeding season, the female rose-breasted grosbeak approaches a singing male, who in turn performs a courtship display involving flight, positioning and song. The pair is monogamous and builds a nest between May and June, with egg laying generally occurring between mid-May and July (2). The nest of the rose-breasted grosbeak is a loose, open cup-shaped structure, and is made from sticks, grass, weeds, decayed leaves and straw, lined internally with fine sticks, roots and hair (3) (2).

A single clutch of 1 to 5 eggs is incubated by both the male and female rose-breasted grosbeak for 12 to 13 days (2), although the female spends most time on the nest, especially at night (2) (3). The smooth-surfaced eggs are slightly glossy and are pale green, blue or green-blue in colouration, with red-brown and purple-red spotting. The young are fed insect matter by both adults and may fledge the nest just nine days after hatching, although fledging at around ten days is more common. The young are dependent on the adults for around three weeks after fledging, with family groups being maintained until migration occurs at the end of the summer (2).

During the breeding season, the male and female rose-breasted grosbeak are intolerant of other individuals and are often involved in conflicts when defending their territory. However, during winter and migration this species is relatively gregarious, forming flocks of up to 50 birds (2).

The northward migration of the rose-breasted grosbeak from its wintering grounds begins between mid-March and mid-April, with individuals arriving on the breeding grounds until late May. Male rose-breasted grosbeaks usually arrive and establish a nesting territory first, with females arriving later. By mid-September, migration begins back to the wintering grounds, with the birds arriving between late October and early November. Migration usually takes place at night (2). 

The rose-breasted grosbeak is a common and widespread species and is not currently thought to be at risk of extinction (6). However, in certain parts of its range the rose-breasted grosbeak is a popular cage bird, although the potential impacts of this on its wild population are currently unknown. Collisions with towers and other stationary objects is a common cause of mortality along the migratory route of this species. Although it seems to be relatively tolerant of human disturbance, the rose-breasted grosbeak may be affected by the degradation of its habitat in the future due to unsuitable forest management (2). 

The rose-breasted grosbeak has been identified as a ‘species of management concern’ in the Midwest United States (2), although there are not known to be any specific conservation measures currently in place for this species.

The rose-breasted grosbeak would benefit from research into its biology and into the factors limiting its population numbers (2).

More information about the rose-breasted grosbeak and its conservation:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (June, 2012)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Wyatt, V.E. and Francis, C.M. (2002) Rose-breasted grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus). In: Poole, A. (Ed)The Birds of North America Online. Available at:
    http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/692/articles/introduction
  3. Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds - Red-breasted grosbeak (June, 2012) 
    http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Rose-breasted_Grosbeak/id
  4. Dunn, J. and Alderfer, J.K. (2006) National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. National Geographic Books, Washington.
  5. Hilty, S.L. and Brown, W.L. (1986) Birds of Colombia. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
  6. BirdLife International - Rose-breasted grosbeak (June, 2012)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=9620