The Black-headed Grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus) is a common migratory bird of the American West. Each year these thick-billed members of the Cardinalidae family return to the United States and Canada to nest in the spring and summer.
Like their close relative, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak, males are eye-catching and distinctive, while female plumage is more subdued. So what do female Black-headed Grosbeaks look like?
Female Black-headed Grosbeaks can be identified by their massive bills, tawny underparts, and prominent pale eyebrow stripe (supercilium). Look out for these birds in the American West in the spring and summer months when they visit and breed in a variety of wooded habitats.
Female Black-headed Grosbeaks most closely resemble female Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. However, they could also be confused with a few other American songbirds and even juvenile males of their own species.
Apart from the obvious visible differences, females also exhibit many differing behaviors from their male counterparts.
Are you looking for more in-depth information about female Black-headed Grosbeaks? Read this guide to learn more about their behavior and how to distinguish them from males and similar species.
Close up of a female Black-headed Grosbeak at a feeder
Male Black-headed Grosbeaks have cinnamon underparts and collars. Their head is indeed black, and their wings are black with bold white bars. Females are dull in comparison, although they have dark heads with pale eyebrow stripes, rufous underparts with fine streaking, and white wing bars.
It’s relatively easy to tell male from female Black-headed Grosbeaks. These birds come from a family where sexual dimorphism is the norm. That means adult males look completely different from females.
Male birds develop their colorful plumage to attract females and compete with other males, but bright colors come with an increased risk of attracting predators.
Continue reading for a more detailed description of the female Black-headed Grosbeak.
Female Black-headed Grosbeak
Male Black-headed Grosbeak
Female Black-headed Grosbeaks are medium, robust songbirds that appear warm brown below and dark above. They sport oversized conical bills on their large heads, which earned them their name. The ‘black-headed’ part is not exactly true of females, although they do have a dark (almost black) crown.
A pale stripe runs above their eye from their bill to the back of their head. This marking, known as the supercilium, separates their dark crown from their brown cheeks. The cheeks are bordered below by another area of cream or white plumage.
Their neck, breast, and nape are a tawny to rufous color, and they have fine dark streaks on their flanks. The upper side of their wings and tails are a similar shade to their heads but include distinct paired wingbars in white or cream.
Black-headed Grosbeak (female)
The female Black-headed Grosbeak is a reasonably distinctive bird, although it can be confused with some similar species. The female Rose-breasted Grosbeak is very similar, but fortunately, the two species rarely overlap outside the Great Plains, where they may hybridize.
Compare the female Black-headed Grosbeak with the following species before confirming your identification:
Juvenile male Black-headed Grosbeaks can appear very similar to adult females. However, these young males often have more extensive white plumage on their wings and deeper cinnamon color on their underparts.
Immature male Black-headed Grosbeak - note the deeper cinnamon color on the underparts, different to the lighter color of females
Female Black-headed Grosbeaks are heavier than males but have shorter wings, tails, and legs. The differences are statistically significant, although you won’t be able to notice them through your binoculars.
A pair of Black-headed Grosbeaks - female left, male right
Telling adult male and female Black-headed Grosbeaks apart by their looks is pretty straightforward, but observing their behavior is an even more fascinating way to learn about these birds. Let’s take a look at some of their unique habits.
Female Rose-breasted Grosbeaks arrive in the United States and Canada about a week later than the males, and this delay is pretty consistent across their breeding range. By the time the females arrive, males have claimed their territory, and pairs can form almost immediately.
You might notice a similar pattern in the fall when females depart two or three weeks after the males.
Both sexes are territorial, and females will choose a male partner based on the quality of his territory and courtship. Pairs may reunite in consecutive years, although this is not usually the case.
Female Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are highly aggressive towards other females that enter their nesting territory. They will engage in physical fights, and the consequences can be deadly with such powerful bills.
Female Black-headed grosbeaks can be highly aggressive, particularly to other females during the breeding season
Grosbeaks are excellent singers, and their talents are not limited to the more colorful males. Continue reading to learn about the vocalizations of female Black-headed Grosbeaks.
Female Black-headed Grosbeaks frequently sing after they have laid their eggs. This behavior may reinforce the bond with their partner and their young family. However, their song is usually shorter and less complex than the males’.
Males sing most frequently after arriving on the breeding grounds to advertise their territory and attract a female, although they will continue to sing through the nesting period. While nesting, these birds will sing and call from the nest or while out gathering food for the nestlings. This behavior continues until the young become independent.
Females also produce a variety of calls, including:
Black-headed Grosbeak at a feeder, waiting for her turn
Female Black-headed Grosbeaks reach sexual maturity earlier than males, usually nesting on their first return to the breeding grounds after hatching. Males will only breed on their second spring return to the United States.
Both males and females play an active role when caring for their eggs and chicks. Continue reading to learn how their responsibilities differ.
Females collect all the materials and build the nest without any assistance from their partners. The nest is not very sturdy, although a sparse floor may help to keep the eggs cool.
Both male and female Black-headed Grosbeaks incubate the eggs during the day, so the eggs are rarely left uncovered. However, females assume sole responsibility after dark. They follow the same pattern after the chicks hatch, with both parents brooding them for the first week or so.
Both parents feed their young in the nest and continue after the chicks have left. Their chicks leave the nest fully two weeks before they are ready to fly, so they cannot survive without the continued attention of their parents.
Female Black-headed Grosbeaks continue to feed the juveniles after the males have departed for their overwintering grounds to the south.
Close up of a female Black-headed Grosbeak on a tree
Female Black-headed Grosbeaks rely heavily on their partner for assistance while caring for the eggs and feeding the growing chicks. They are likely to fail at raising their young alone.
Female Black-headed Grosbeaks are not colorful, although their plumage contrasts to create a fairly striking bird. They are predominantly tawny below, with brown upper parts interspersed with black and white details.
Their eyes are dark brown (appearing black), their legs are dark gray, and their bills are brown above and cream below.
Female Black-headed Grosbeaks call for a variety of reasons, including nest defense and to communicate with their partner. Their typical call is a sharp ‘chip’ note.
Female Black-headed Grosbeaks sing a similar but less refined version of the male song. Their song probably functions primarily to maintain the bond between themselves, their partner, and their young.
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