The return of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) is eagerly awaited by American birdwatchers each spring. These thick-billed songbirds undertake an incredible journey each year, guided by their instincts and an innate drive for survival. So where exactly do they go?
Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are complete migrants that alternate between breeding grounds in the deciduous forests of the northeastern United States and Canada, and tropical forest habitats from Central America to below the Equator in countries like Colombia and Ecuador.
The journey between these regions can span thousands of miles, following ancient routes that skirt unsuitable habitats and cross hundreds of miles of open water.
The birds undertake this migration because the rich pickings of their summer breeding grounds are temporary, and year-round survival in the North American winter would be impossible.
There’s much more to learn about the Rose-breasted Grosbeak migration. Read along to learn how, where, and when these scarlet-chested songbirds migrate.
Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are a highly migratory species
Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are highly migratory songbirds that visit Canada and the Northeast of the United States in the spring to nest. The entire population migrates, so American birdwatchers are highly unlikely to see these colorful members of the cardinal family outside of the breeding season.
Rose-breasted Grosbeaks begin their northward spring migration from their overwintering grounds in late April. By mid-May, virtually the entire population has entered the United States, with many still en route to their northernmost breeding grounds in Canada. The summer season is brief at those latitudes, and the birds begin their southward fall migration in August.
Continue reading to learn when you might spot migrating Rose-breasted Grosbeaks in your state.
Usually by mid May, all Rose-breasted Grosbeaks have reached the US
Winter is a harsh and unforgiving season when temperatures plummet and food is in short supply. The Rose-breasted Grosbeak diet includes a large proportion of insects and other invertebrates that just aren’t available in the winter.
A perilous 2000-mile journey over land and sea ensures that the birds enjoy warm conditions and abundant food resources throughout the year.
Rose-breasted Grosbeaks have a wide distribution from Central Canada in the north to Ecuador in the South. Within this range, the shortest migration distances are about 1000 miles, but some birds will fly a staggering 3000 miles one way.
Rose-breasted Grosbeak migration ranges from 1,000 to 3,000 miles - pictured, a female Rose-breasted grosbeak perched in a tree
The Rose-breasted Grosbeaks’ spring migration lasts about three months from when the first birds begin leaving their overwintering grounds in South America until the last birds arrive in their northernmost breeding territories in Canada.
Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are neotropical migrants that move between northern South America and Central America for the winter, and the United States and Canada for the summer. They breed from western Canada, through the American Midwest, Northeast, and along the Appalachian mountains.
Rose-breasted Grosbeaks use the Mississippi flyway. The Gulf of Mexico is an imposing barrier, but most of the population flies directly over this 500-mile stretch of open ocean. Others go around the coast of Mexico, and some even take a more easterly route by flying over the Caribbean Islands.
Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are birds of wooded habitats, and this preference dictates their migration route through the United States. The birds that breed in western Canada fly north through the contiguous United States before veering west around Minnesota. They take this indirect route to avoid the open grasslands and prairie of the Great Plains.
A very inquisitive male Rose-breasted Grosbeak perched in a tree
We don't know precisely how long each individual Grosbeak takes to migrate, but estimates indicate that their average progress is about fifty miles per day in the spring and about half this speed in the fall.
However, they can cover ground much faster when needed. These birds will cross the more than 500-mile stretch of open ocean to reach Central America in a single flight that takes less than a day.
Rose-breasted Grosbeaks do not fly non-stop. Instead, their journey lasts several weeks, including daily stops. However, there are stages in their migration when rest is impossible.
For example, the flight over the Gulf of Mexico must be completed in a single determined effort since there is nowhere to rest or perch.
Rose-breasted Grosbeak (male) perched in a pine tree, Richmond Hill, ON, Canada
Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are not flocking birds, although bird watchers have noted loose groups of fifty or more on their overwintering grounds. They are difficult to observe while flying at night, but sightings suggest they travel in small groups, pairs, or singly.
The entire population of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks is migratory. Birdwatchers can spot these birds in the areas between their breeding and overwintering grounds during migration periods, although none are sedentary.
Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Downy Woodpecker feeding from a suet feeder in a backyard
Winter is the non-breeding season when Rose-breasted Grosbeaks migrate south to Central and South America.
The birds that spend the summer nesting in the Midwest and Western Canada generally migrate to Mexico and Central America for the winter.
Rose Breasted Grosbeaks that spend the summer in the Eastern United States are more likely to overwinter further south in Venezuela, Panama, and Colombia.
Rose-breasted Grosbeaks spend the Summer in North America. Their breeding range includes much of the northeastern US and across Canada, from British Columbia in the west to Nova Scotia in the east.
In the United States, birdwatchers can see Rose-breasted Grosbeaks from North Dakota and Kansas in the west to the Great Lakes Region and virtually throughout the Northeast. They also enter the Southeast along the Appalachians.
Male and female Rose-breasted Grosbeak, in a garden during migration
Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are nocturnal migrants that use the stars to guide their way. Flying at night usually means less wind and a reduced threat of predation from falcons and other birds of prey.
Rose-breasted Grosbeaks migrate in groups from one to over fifty individuals. Pairs and small flocks are the most common. Female Rose-breasted Grosbeaks arrive later than males, who must secure breeding territories before courting a partner.
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