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The Rose-Breasted Grosbeak: A Sweet-Singing Bird

For many people, the sight of a rose-breasted grosbeak at a backyard bird feeder or flitting about a forest is a welcome one. These birds are easy to identify from their eye-catching plumage. They are stark black and white except for the rose-colored breasts for which they are named. 

A male rose-breasted grosbeak on a twig with a seed in its mouth.
(Photo courtesy of Joe Viola)

That rose-colored breast has earned them the nickname cutthroat, but it only applies to the adult male birds. Female and immature rose-colored grosbeaks are plain looking in comparison to the males. They are streaky brown on their wings and backs, and they have lighter colored breasts and a white stripe at their eyes that can help identify them. 

These birds' colorful breasts aren’t the only part of their name based on their appearance. The word grosbeak is derived from the French word grosbec, which means large beak. This term certainly does fit the bill for rose-breasted grosbeaks. 

Their chunky bills allow them to make quick work of seeds. You may be able to attract them to your yard by keeping a bird feeder stocked. Good choices for these birds are sunflower seeds, safflower seeds or raw peanuts.


Words to know

Brood: A family of young animals produced at one hatching or birth.

Deciduous: Shedding its leaves annually.

Thicket: A dense group of bushes or trees.

Variable: Not consistent or having a fixed pattern.


Even though they are skilled at eating seeds, rose-breasted grosbeaks actually have quite variable diets. During fall migration, they eat a lot of berries. In the summer breeding season, they eat insects, seeds and fruits. 

Rose-breasted grosbeaks spend the winter in the tropical regions of Mexico, Central America and South America. While there they eat a combination of insects and other invertebrates as well as plant matter. They usually eat while perched on branches, but they can snatch insects out of the air.

During the breeding season, rose-breasted grosbeaks primarily live in deciduous forests, thickets and other semi-open areas. They prefer to be high up in the trees and aren't usually seen down low unless they are visiting bird feeders, bird baths or another source of water. 

They nest in trees or sometimes shrubs. The male and female work together over several days to construct a nest from sticks, twigs, plant stems, grasses and straw. Their nests are not very solidly built. The eggs inside can sometimes be seen through the weaved together nesting materials.

Females will lay between one and five eggs, and they can have one or two broods each breeding season. Eggs are a speckled pale blue or green. The female birds are primarily responsible for incubation, but the male birds will take a turn incubating for several hours a day. The eggs hatch after about two weeks, and the young birds stay in the nest for between nine and 12 days after hatching.

Both male and female rose-breasted grosbeaks sing, which is not common among songbirds. They are one of the few birds that will sing from their nests. They can be identified by their song if you have a good ear. Their song is said to sound similar to that of a robin, but more melodious and sweet sounding. The birds also have a call that might sound familiar. Their "eek" call is said to sound like the squeak of a gym shoe on a gym floor.

The rose-breasted grosbeak is among a handful of grosbeak species that live in the United States, but it is the only one regularly seen in northern Illinois. The evening grosbeak may be seen in Illinois on rare occasions, but sightings are usually few. These eye-catching black, yellow and white birds mostly stick to the forests of Canada and the far northern United States, but flocks of them may occasionally migrate as far as Illinois and points south while searching for food. Similarly, the North American range of the reddish-pink pine grosbeak is limited to Canada and the far northern United States. 

The blue grosbeak's range includes southern Illinois as well as parts of the Plains, the south, the southeast and the southwest as well as Mexico and the Caribbean nations, but this bird isn't typically seen in the north and the northeast. And the black-headed grosbeak lives only in western North America, not venturing as far east as the Mississippi River.


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