Male rose-breasted grosbeak

Male rose-breasted grosbeak are stunning birds that bring some tropical color to the Southern Appalachians every spring.

Birds keep returning. At times, it’s like a new bird is putting in an appearance every day. Some of the returning species are showy; others are more subtle in their beauty.

The rose-breasted grosbeak is definitely one of the birds in the showy category. In fact, I’d suggest that a male rose-breasted grosbeak is a showstopper for most people, especially people who have never seen one of these glorious birds.

I haven’t yet seen one this spring, but I am planning to take part in the annual five-county Spring Bird Count conducted by the Elizabethton Bird Club, and I am hopeful I will be fortunate enough to find one of these beauties.

As is usually the case, the grosbeaks tend to arrive in the wake of the first hummingbirds, and this year has been no exception.


Erwin resident Ron Elliott posted on The Erwin Record’s Facebook page about his first spring sighting.”

“Our first sighting of a Rose-breasted Grossbeak today (April 30) at 9:15 a.m.,” Ron wrote.

“The sighting always comes about the first week of May,” he added.

Ron also shared that the secret to observing rose-breasted grosbeak is a well-stocked feeder.

“No seeds, no birds,” he noted.


Ann Windsor in southwest Tennessee shared on Facebook that she had a rose-breasted grosbeak feeding on her deck feeder on May 3 and a few others the previous week. She noted that her daughter, who lives about eight miles away, had had some grosbeaks at her feeder.


Felicia Mitchell in Washington County, Virginia, has hosted two male grosbeaks but, to date, no females.


Karen Fouts in Marion, Virginia, wrote on Facebook about a small flock of visiting grosbeaks. 

“I have four or five regulars, all male. I know the females must be here somewhere, but I haven't seen one yet,” she shared.


Nancy Vernon reported on Facebook seeing grosbeaks in Bristol, Tennessee, on May 3.


Sue Schreiner reported via Facebook on May 3 about seeing a grosbeak fly past at South Holston Lake. 


Sharee Bowman mentioned via Facebook about seeing female grosbeaks last week and males this week in Cedar Bluff, Virginia.


John Whinery of Fall Branch, Tennessee, said he received his first-ever visit from a rose-breasted grosbeak on his farm on Sunday, April 30. 


Brookie and Jean Potter reported that they have hosted two male grosbeaks since May 1 at their home near Wilbur Lake in Elizabethton, Tennessee.


Carolyn Grubb of Bristol, Virginia, also shared that she has hosted a male grosbeak.


Ed Schneider in Nashville, Tennessee, reported lots of grosbeaks passing through during migration earlier in the season.

“Mostly gone through now,” he wrote on Facebook. “Only a single female today (May 4).”


Gary and Nancy Barrigar shared on Facebook that they have hosted male and female grosbeaks since April 28 at their home in Elizabethton, Tennessee.


Mary Ragland in Abingdon, Virginia, reported that her grosbeaks arrived on May 1. 


Plenty of rose-breasted grosbeaks pass through northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia, and western North Carolina, and a few even decide to make their summer home on local mountains. However, these birds spread out widely across the eastern half of the North American continent, ranging from northeastern British Columbia to Quebec and Nova Scotia in Canada. They also range south from New Jersey to Georgia. The rose-breasted grosbeak also reaches Colorado, Oklahoma, and Kansas.

As fall approaches, the rose-breasted grosbeak migrates south to a winter range that spans central Mexico, Central America, and northern South America. As they depart, many of these migrating birds will make autumn visits to again partake of offerings of sunflower seeds at backyard feeders. So, if you don’t get to see these showy birds in the spring, you get another chance in September and October.

The male rose-breasted grosbeak gives this species it name. Males are the epitome of the birds that make their home for part of the year in the American tropics. The contrasting black and white plumage is emphasized by a triangular slash of rosy-red color on the breast. Put all those elements together, and the male rose-breasted grosbeak is not a bird that would be mistaken for any other.

The female grosbeak, however, doesn’t stand out in the same way. She is much less colorful than the male. With her brown and white plumage, she is often mistaken for a large sparrow or finch.

Both sexes have a massive bill, which they use to hull sunflower seeds at feeders or glean insects from leaves and branches. It’s the heavy, blunt bill from which the term “grosbeak” is derived. “Gros” is a German term for large or big, so grosbeak simply means a large-beaked bird. People who band birds to further the study of them will tell you that rose-breasted grosbeaks can inflict a wicked nip. Regional bird banders frequently encounter rose-breasted grosbeaks in their mist nets — and bear the scars to prove it.

Away from our feeders, rose-breasted grosbeaks feed on insects, seeds, fruit, and even some leaf buds and flowers. I’ve seen these birds satisfying a sweet tooth — or should that be a sweet beak? — by feeding on jewelweed flowers and apple blossoms. If sugar’s good for hummingbirds, I am sure it is a valuable energy source for rose-breasted grosbeaks, too.

The rose-breasted grosbeak is a cherished spring visitor that never fails to disappoint by bringing a hint of the tropics to the mountains.


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