English Name: black-headed grosbeak
Spanish Name: picogordo tigrillo
View all images of Pheucticus melanocephalus
This species is present in the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum's live collection.
Black-headed Grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus)
This grosbeak measures 6½ to 7½ inches (17 to 19 cm). The adult male has a black head, brownish-orange underparts, and black wings with white wing bars. The female has a striped head, streaked back and sides, and sparsely streaked buff-colored breast. The heavy, conical bill is pale in both sexes.
The Black-headed Grosbeak is found from southern British Columbia and Saskatchewan, through the western half of the United States, south to its wintering grounds in western Mexico. This bird inhabits foothills and dense riverside wooded areas. It breeds mainly in deciduous and mixed woods such as cottonwood and willow groves, pine-oak and pinyon-juniper woodlands. In migration its habitat includes open woods, riparian areas, mesquite bosques, desert washes, and even suburban areas.
• Diet: Feed on insects, berries, and seeds; Black-headed Grosbeak includes spiders and snails. It is able to feed on Monarch butterflies in spite of the noxious chemicals they exude.
• Behavior: Black-headed Grosbeak forages by hovering and taking prey from the foliage of shrubs and trees and by flying out to catch insects midair.
This male's courtship display involves flying above the female with wings and tail spread open and singing. The bulky, open cup-shaped nest is built by the female in trees or large shrubs. It is made of twigs, weeds, pine needles, and rootlets with a lining made of finer material such as fine grass and animal hair. Two to five pale greenish blue eggs with reddish brown spots are incubated by both parents. The young take about twelve to fourteen days to hatch. The nestlings are able to fly about a month after hatching but remain nearby to be fed by their parents.
Cardinals & Grosbeaks
The Northern Cardinal is among the most popular garden birds in eastern North America, chosen as the official state bird of seven eastern states. Travelers are often surprised to discover that, in the very different surroundings of the Sonoran Desert, the same cardinal is abundant — along with several other related birds.
All the members of this group have thick bills, good for crushing hard seeds, which make up a high percentage of their diet at some seasons; most of them switch over to eating mainly insects during the nesting season. In all of our species, the males have bright colors and rich whistled songs. When they are not singing, they often hide their colors amidst dense foliage.
Very closely related to the cardinal is the Pyrrhuloxia. The male Pyrrhuloxia is mostly gray, with its red reduced to accents and highlights, but otherwise it and the cardinal are remarkably similar; some of their whistled songs are essentially identical. The two species live side by side in dense brush along desert washes, but the Pyrrhuloxia also ranges out into more open and arid places.
At the other end of the spectrum from these red birds are the Varied Bunting (mostly dark purple) and the Blue Grosbeak, mainly summer residents in the Sonoran Desert. Another species, the Black-headed Grosbeak, is mostly a denizen of oak woods in summer, but migrants show up all over the desert in spring and fall.