E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Wildlife of British Columbia

Pheucticus melanocephalus Swainson, 1827
Black-Headed Grosbeak
Family: Cardinalidae

Species account author: Jamie Fenneman
Photo of species

© Tim Zurowski  Email the photographer   (Photo ID #8750)

Distribution of Pheucticus melanocephalus in British Columbia.
(Click on the map to view a larger version.)
Source: Distribution map provided by Jamie Fenneman for E-Fauna BC

Species Information

Adult male
The back and scapulars are black with narrow, irregular cinnamon-buff streaks; the rump is rich cinnamon, the uppertail coverts are black with small buff tips. The wings are black with two boldly contrasting white wing bars (formed by the white median upperwing coverts and tips of the greater secondary coverts), a bold white patch at the base of the primaries, and white spots on the tips of the outer webs of the tertials and secondaries. The relatively long, square-tipped tail is black with extensive white on the inner webs of all but the innermost feathers (most apparent in flight or on perched birds from below). The breast, sides, and flanks are rich cinnamon-coloured (richest on the breast), the belly is yellow, and the lower belly and undertail coverts are whitish. The underwing coverts are yellow (sometimes visibile as a small yellow spot at the bend of the wing when perched) and, in flight, the undersides of the flight feathers are wholly dark grey with a bold white spot at the base of the primaries. The crown, lores, ear coverts, malar area, and chin are black and contrast sharply with the cinnamon-coloured nape, sides of the neck, and throat; this cinnamon-buff colour often extend into a narrow post-ocular stripe. During the winter, the black feathers of the head and the feathers of the body become tipped with buff, giving the bird an overall buff-mottled appearance and significantly obscuring the black on the head and upperparts. The iris is dark, the heavy conical bill is bicolored with a dark grey upper mandible and a paler grey or bluish-grey lower mandible, and the legs and feet are dark grey.

Adult female
The upperparts, including the back, scapulars, rump, uppertail coverts, wings, and tail are primarily brown, with narrow, irregular blackish and buffy streaks on the back and scapulars and greyish-brown or buffy mottling on the rump; the median and greater secondary coverts are tipped with white, forming two narrow whitish wing bars, and there is a small area of white at the base of primaries and small whitish spots at the tips of the tertials and secondaries (this wing pattern resembles that of the male, but the white is much less extensive and not as sharply contrasting). The tail feathers have narrow whitish edges on the inner webs of the feathers that decrease in extent towards the central feathers. The breast, sides, and flanks are buffy (colour richest on the breast), with fine, narrow brown streaks on the sides and flanks (rarely a few very narrow streaks across the breast); the belly and undertail coverts are whitish or buffy-white. The underwing coverts are yellow. The crown and forehead are blackish-brown with a narrow whitish median crown stripe; the nape and sides of the neck are buffy with narrow brown streaks (brown streaks sometimes lacking on the sides of the neck). The supercilium and malar areas are whitish to pale buffy-white and contrast sharply with the wholly dark brown ear coverts and paler dusky-brown lores; the chin is whitish and the throat is rich buff. Bare part colouration is similar to that of the adult male.

Immature male
Immature plumage is acquired between late summer and fall of the first year, and immature plumages are held throughout the following year. During the first winter, immature males closely resemble the adult female, but have darker and more contrasting blackish-brown on the head (crown, ear coverts) and richer cinnamon-buff on the throat and underparts with little or no fine brown streaking on the sides. A partial molt occurs during the first spring, resulting in a ‘first-summer’ plumage that is highly variable. Some birds remain very similar to the first-winter plumage (and thus very similar to adult females), while other individuals more closely resemble the adult male but have less extensive black on the head; most birds in first-summer plumage are intermediate between these extremes.

This plumage is held briefly during the late summer of the first year, but is lost before or during fall migration. Juveniles are very similar to adult females but are somewhat buffier, although juvenile males are slightly brighter and richer-coloured than juvenile females and can approach adult females in tone. Juvenile birds are always distinguishable from adult females by their fresh plumage (adult females are in very worn plumage during the late summer).

Total Length: 20-21 cm
Mass: 35-49 g

Source: Hill (1995); Sibley (2000)



Adult males are very distinctive and unlikely to be confused with any other species. Adult females and immatures, however, are very similar to the corresponding plumages of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak and can be easily confused with that species. In most cases, female and immature Black-headed Grosbeaks are overall buffier and more richly-coloured than Rose-breasted Grosbeak, which generally appears browner, and have a distinctly bicolored bill (dark upper mandible) that differs from the more uniformly pale bill (usually with a dusky culmen) of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Female and immature Rose-breasted Grosbeak has paler, whiter (sometimes buff-tinged) underparts with extensive heavy dark brown streaks on the breast that extend onto the flanks. Black-headed Grosbeak, by comparison, has a rich buff (almost butterscotch-toned) breast that is largely unstreaked or, at most, has a few very fine dark streaks; these dark streaks are more prevalent on the sides and flanks, but are still much narrower than those of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Some immature male Rose-breasted Grosbeaks during their first winter can appear very similar to female Black-headed Grosbeak, however, and are best distinguished by their reddish underwing coverts (yellowish in Black-headed Grosbeak) and bill colour. Immature male Black-headed Grosbeaks acquire rich butterscotch-coloured underparts with little or no streaking during their first winter, and are thus usually readily identifiable even by this age.

Fall migrants are sometimes mistaken for Smith’s Longspur when they appear at feeding stations, but the massive conical bill, dark brown ear coverts, dark brown crown, bold pale supercilium, and overall size of the Black-headed Grosbeak (it is noticeably larger and bulkier than a longspur) should help to eliminate any confusion.

The song is a whistled series of warbled, ascending or descending phrases or syllables that are separated by brief pauses, often with the impression of alternating rising and falling phrases: toowhi, toowhoo, toowhii, toowhii, phreeuu, towhii, phreeuu. The overall pattern is similar to the song of the American Robin, but the quality of the notes is richer and sweeter and the alternating rising and falling pattern of the phrases is reasonably diagnostic. The song is extremely similar to the song of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and in many cases may not be distinguishable, but the phrases average somewhat choppier, faster-paced, and higher-pitched. The most commonly heard call is a high, sharp pik that is similar to the call note of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak but is distinctly lower-pitched and less squeaky; the call may also bring to mind the call note of the Downy Woodpecker, but is higher-pitched and less flat. Also gives a soft, wheezy wheek or wheeet in flight.

Sources: Hill (1995); Sibley (2000)

Breeding Ecology

Pair bonds are formed immediately upon arrival on the breeding grounds, sometimes within hours, and pairs remain mated throughout the breeding season. The male courts the female by singing persistently and aggressively in her presence, both from a perch and during short, stiff-winged flights that expose the boldly contrasting pattern of the wings and tail.

The female constructs the nest alone over a period of 3-4 days soon after arrival on the breeding grounds. The nest itself is an open, bulky, loosely-constructed cup that is situated near the outer branches of a deciduous tree or shrub. It is composed of small twigs, grasses, weed stems, and rootlets and is lined with finer materials such as fine grasses, rootlets, hair, and plant down.

A single clutch of (1) 3-4 (5) eggs is laid between mid- to late May and late June or early July, and is incubated by both sexes for 12-14 days before hatching. The smooth, slightly glossy eggs are pale greenish-blue with extensive reddish-brown speckling (often concentrated around the larger end of the egg). Eggs are present in B.C. between mid-May and mid-July. This species is an occasional host for Brown-headed Cowbird nest parasitism.

The young are altricial and downy upon hatching, with pinkish skin and patches of sparse whitish or greyish-white down; the mouth is reddish and the gape flanges are yellow. The young are tended in the nest by both parents for 10-14 days before fledging; the young are unable to fly at fledging, but clamber around the branches near the nest. The young are tended by the parents after leaving the nest, and can fly within ~15 days of fledging. The parents (primarily the female) continue to feed and tend to the young after they are capable of flight, but cease once they have departed the breeding grounds for fall migration. Nestlings and dependent fledglings are present in B.C. between early June and early August.

Source: Hill (1995); Baicich and Harrison (1997); Campbell et al. (2001)
Foraging Ecology

The Black-headed Grosbeak feeds extensively on both insects as well as plant foods (berries, fruits, seeds) throughout the breeding season. Insect prey is gleaned from the branches, twigs, and foliage of coniferous and deciduous trees, often high in the canopy, although it occasionally engages in short flights to capture flying insects. Fruits, berries and seeds are plucked directly from the branches of shrubs and trees. This species occasionally visits bird feeding stations during the breeding season or during migration.

Source: Hill (1995)


The Black-headed Grosbeak typically breeds in second-growth or mature mixed forests, as well as in deciduous stands such as riparian cottonwood groves and aspen copses in grasslands; it rarely occurs in purely coniferous habitats. It is also strongly associated with brushy riparian thickets along the edges of ponds, creeks, lakes, and rivers, particularly in the interior, and regularly occurs in suburban parks and gardens where there is sufficient tree and shrub cover.

Source: Campbell et al. (2001)


Global Range

Breeds from southern B.C., southern Alberta, and southwestern Saskatchewan south through the western United States, ranging west to the Pacific coast and east to the Great Plains (central Nebraska, central Kansas); it also breeds south through much of northern and central Mexico. This species winters primarily in central Mexico and the southern half of Baja California.
BC Distribution

On the south coast, this species is fairly common on southern and eastern Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands, the Lower Mainland (east to Hope) and is uncommon on northern and western Vancouver Island as well as along the southern mainland coast from the Sunshine Coast north to Johnstone Strait; generally rare and highly local farther north along the central and northern mainland coast (Bella Coola area, etc.), although it is locally uncommon in the lower Skeena River watershed. It is also fairly common in the south-central and southeastern interior (east to the Rocky Mountains), most commonly in the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys, the West Kootenays (Trail, Castlegar, Nelson, and Creston areas) and the southern Rocky Mountain Trench. It is rare to uncommon farther north in the interior to the North Thompson River (north of Kamloops) and Chilcotin area, as well as along the Rocky Mountain Trench north of Kinbasket Lake.

Migration and Vagrancy
Spring migrants first arrive on the south coast in early May (rarely in late April, exceptionally in early to mid-April), but the majority of the population does not arrive until mid-May; most birds arrive in southwestern B.C. during the last half of May. In the southern interior, the first individuals arrive in early May (exceptionally in April) but most of the population arrives in late May or early June. Fall migrants begin to depart the breeding territories across southern B.C. in late July or early August, and most birds have left the province by early to mid-September, with a few birds lingering into late September. Occasional very late fall migrants may occur in October or even November, but this is extremely rare.

Casual to very rare, primarily during the spring and summer (exceptionally as late as November), north through the central interior to the Prince George region and west to the Fraser River and eastern slopes of the Coast Mountains (some may breed locally in the latter regions). Casual fall vagrant (September-November) on the Queen Charlotte Islands. Accidental in the southern interior and casual on the south coast in winter; this species is significantly less likely to be encountered in B.C. during the winter than the Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

Source: Campbell et al. (2001)


Population and Conservation Status

The abundance and distribution of Black-headed Grosbeak in B.C. has increased substantially over the past 40-50 years. During the first half of the 20th century, this species was restricted in B.C. primarily to the Georgia Depression (eastern Vancouver Island, Lower Mainland), the Okanagan Valley, and the West Kootenays between Trail and Creston. Since the 1950s, however, this species has expanded its range onto northern and western Vancouver Island, up the mainland coast as far as the Skeena River, and north and east through the interior to the North Thompson River and the southern Rocky Mountain Trench (although the species remains decidedly uncommon throughout many of these newly-occupied areas). This species is quite abundant across southern B.C. and is currently not recognized as a species of conservation concern by either COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada) or the B.C. CDC (Conservation Data Centre).

Source: Campbell et al. (2001)


Two weakly-defined subspecies are recognized, both of which are found in British Columbia. This species is closely related to the Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and the two species routinely hybridize where their ranges meet on the Great Plains.

The subspecies occurring in British Columbia are as follows:

Pheucticus melanocephalus melanocephalus
This species is found in the southern interior of British Columbia, as well as farther south through the interior of the United States and Mexico. It averages slightly larger and larger-billed than P.m.maculatus and the adult male usually lacks the cinnamon-buff stripe behind the eye.

Pheucticus melanocephalus maculatus (Audubon)
This subspecies is found along the Pacific coast from British Columbia south to Baja California. It averages slightly smaller and smaller-billed than the nominate subspecies, and adult males tend to have a cinnamon-buff post-ocular stripe.

Source: Hill (1995)

Status Information

Origin StatusProvincial StatusBC List
(Red Blue List)
NativeS5BYellowNot Listed
BC Ministry of Environment: BC Species and Ecosystems Explorer--the authoritative source for conservation information in British Columbia.

Additional Range and Status Information Links

Additional Photo Sources

General References

Recommended citation: Author, Date. Page title. In Klinkenberg, Brian. (Editor) 2021. E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Fauna of British Columbia [efauna.bc.ca]. Lab for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver. [Accessed: 2022-09-24 8:26:14 AM]
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