Black Headed Grosbeak

Black Headed Grosbeak

Even though it is only late January, Leonard and I are already thrilling to the songs of our resident birds – one of the earliest signs of spring to come. Today the robins were particularly active.

Although the black headed grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus) winters in Central America and will not return to Northeastern California for a couple months (April or May), I thought of this large passerine while listening to the robin songs. The black headed grosbeak song is a series of warbled phrases that resembles the robin’s song.

Although we do not see large numbers of black headed grosbeaks, the orange-cinnamon breeding male with his black head and black and white wings is easily identified. Females are much less colorful, yet still attractive with their brown and buffy plumage.

The species name of a black headed grosbeak, melanocephalus, is composed of both a Greek and a Latin root and means “black headed”, which perfectly describes the breeding male. “Pheucticus”, the genus designation, may derive from the Greek word “pheuticus” meaning “shy” or the Greek word “phycticus” meaning “painted with cosmetics”. Although black headed grosbeaks are colorful and look like they are wearing makeup, I prefer the second possibility because usually black headed grosbeaks are wary. The best time to photograph them is in the spring when the males are preoccupied trying to attract a mate with their robin-like songs.

This black headed grosbeak was photographed along the Lower Hat Creek Trail (Shasta County CA) in May.

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