Wide-billed, rust-colored songbirds, black-headed grosbeaks are spring visitors that arrive to breed in the west-central U.S. and southwest Canada between March and May each year. By late summer, they set off for their wintering grounds in Mexico.
Do you know what kind of habitats black-headed grosbeaks prefer for breeding? If not, and you’d like to find out, please read on as we investigate where black-headed grosbeaks live.
Black-headed grosbeaks are migratory songbirds, arriving to breed in riverside woodlands, mountain valleys and floodplains in the west of the U.S. and southern Canada from March onwards. Once the breeding season ends, they fly south to spend winters in Mexican forests.
Relatively comfortable around human habitation, black-headed grosbeaks are on the increase in suburban areas, visiting backyard feeders (where they are particularly partial to sunflower hearts) and even establishing nests in gardens with tall leafy trees and dense undergrowth.
Within their breeding range, in western North America, they are not uncommon, and their distinctive rusty-orange and black plumage makes them reasonably easy to identify.
By winter, all black-headed grosbeaks will have departed from the U.S. for their warmer wintering grounds in tropical and subtropical Mexican forests.
To learn more about landscapes and habitats that may attract this heavy-billed songbird at different times of the year, please keep reading.
Black-headed Grosbeaks can mainly be seen in the west of the US and southern parts of Canada from March
Black-headed grosbeaks breed in various habitats throughout western North America from southwestern Canada to southern Mexico. A migratory species, they spend winter months in Mexico, and can be seen in passage across much of the western and central United States in fall and spring.
Black-headed grosbeaks breed across the western U.S., with the Great Plains forming the eastern edge of their natural breeding range. By the time winter arrives, all birds – except for individual stragglers on the rare occasions – have left the U.S. for southern Mexico.
Their migration passage is an unhurried affair, with lengthy stopovers across the southern and southwestern states while molting and feeding on late summer and early fall berries.
In the extreme north of their range, pairs of black-headed grosbeaks have successfully established breeding grounds in southeast Alaska. Further south, the species breeds as far east as North Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and parts of Texas. To the west, the species is widespread across California, Oregon and Washington during the spring and summer breeding seasons.
Close up of a female Black-headed Grosbeak
The extreme southwest of Canada welcomes black-headed grosbeaks each spring, with breeding established in southwestern Saskatchewan, southern Alberta and southern British Columbia.
Breeding habitats of black-headed grosbeaks include subalpine forests to desert riparian zones. Backyards with dense tree cover and thick and varied undergrowth may also attract nesting pairs, as the species tolerates living and breeding in close proximity to humans.
Deciduous tree species including cottonwood, aspen, willow and alder, are characteristic of habitats favored by black-headed grosbeaks.
In recent years, population numbers are on the increase, and the species is commonly seen in suburban parks and in backyards with large, shady trees.
Black-headed Grosbeaks are increasingly being spotted in backyards, as population numbers continue to rise
The tuneful song of black-headed grosbeaks can be heard across much of western North America in early spring, and as the species is quite tolerant of human company and relatively easy to identify, at certain times of year a sighting isn’t especially rare in the westernmost U.S states.
In riverside woodlands and mountain foothills across the western U.S. the species is reasonably common and widespread in the breeding season.
During fall migration, large numbers of black-headed grosbeaks may be seen briefly stocking up in fruit trees further south, as they make their way to their Mexican wintering grounds.
Data suggests that California and Oregon have the highest numbers of black-headed grosbeaks.
Although they choose nesting spots with dense tree cover or thick foliage, they may occasionally visit backyards to feed, particularly on sunflower hearts, so if you’re in the right part of the country at the right time of year, supplying their favorite seeds might give you a good shot at spotting one.
Black-headed Grosbeaks are relatively common in California and Oregon
Black-headed Grosbeaks are diurnal birds, meaning they spend the majority of the day foraging for food, usually from early morning through to the evening.
The first black-headed grosbeaks arrive on their spring breeding territories from late March onwards, with adult males arriving first, followed with 5 to 7 days by adult females.
The further north the breeding grounds, the later the arrivals, with birds that nest in British Columbia not reaching their nesting sites until May.
Black-headed grosbeaks are migratory, with all populations arriving across western North America in spring to breed, before heading to southern Mexico to spend winter months in subtropical and tropical forests.
Black-headed Grosbeak perched at the top of a spruce tree, Vancouver, Canada
Southern Mexico is almost exclusively the overwintering destination of all black-headed grosbeaks. On rare occasions, individuals may be recorded in the extreme southern U.S. or further south into Central America.
Black-headed Grosbeaks spend winters in tropical and subtropical lowland habitats, including pine and oak forests, only returning to their breeding grounds in early spring, once temperatures are more tolerable.
Black-headed grosbeaks undergo a molt once the breeding season ends, and once their new plumage is complete, they head south to southern Mexico, arriving between August and October.
Black-headed Grosbeaks are a highly migratory species - pictured, a female perched on a branch
After spending the winter in Mexican forests, black-headed grosbeaks return to their breeding grounds across the northwest U.S. and southwest Canada between March and May.
Summers are spent raising young, followed by a late-summer molt, during which birds may spend extended periods of two or more months at a temporary stopover, feeding on berries and insects before heading further south for the winter.
During the breeding season, pairs of black-headed grosbeaks are territorial and do not welcome other birds intruding on their patch.
Once nesting is over, this fierce and feisty instinct passes, and birds form loose flocks during migration, with large numbers seen feeding together on berry trees as they break their journey south.
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