Pheucticus ludovicianus

Status:  Common regular spring migrant east, fairly common central, rare west. Common regular breeder east, rare east-central. Common regular fall migrant east, rare central, rare casual west.

Documentation:  Specimen: UNSM ZM12080, 31 May 1895 Lancaster Co.

Taxonomy:  No subspecies are recognized (Pyle 1997).

This species hybridizes with Black-headed Grosbeak where their ranges meet (Short 1961, Swenk 1936, West 1962). Both “pure” birds and hybrids are found in the zone of overlap (Short 1961), an indication of some degree of assortative mating, the primary reason why these species have retained specific status (Mayr and Short 1970, AOU 1983, Sibley and Monroe 1990). Interestingly, there is evidence that hybrids mate assortatively with other hybrids (Anderson and Daugherty 1974, Wyatt and Francis 2020). It has been suggested that the extent of hybridization of the grosbeaks is greater in the central Great Plains, including Nebraska (West 1962), where densities are relatively low, and habitat is patchy, than in the northern Great Plains, where densities of both species are high, and habitat is extensive (Kroodsma 1974, Wyatt and Francis 2020).

Individuals showing characters indicative of hybridization (West 1962) are widespread in central Nebraska. Short (1961) found phenotypically pure Rose-breasted Grosbeaks west to Burwell and Elm Creek; there was evidence of hybridization in the Platte River Valley from Colfax to Dawson Co, and in Saline, Adams, Howard, and Holt Cos. West (1962) found the greatest incidence of hybrids in the area between Central City and Gothenburg in the Platte River Valley.

Around 1900, Rose-breasted and Black-headed Grosbeaks’ ranges were not in contact; Rose-breasted was found west to the 98th parallel, a line from Knox to Nuckolls Counties, and Black-headed Grosbeak east to approximately a line from connecting Boyd and Webster Counties (Bruner et al 1904). The ranges had met by the 1920s, however, based on hybrid specimens collected in Hall and Clay Counties 1920-1930, and by 1961, the greatest incidence of hybrids was found in the area between Central City and Gothenburg in the Platte River Valley (Short 1961, West 1962). Hybrid specimens UNSM ZM7076 and UNSM ZM7077 were collected at Grand Island, Hall Co 28 Jun 1930 and Inland 18 May 1920 respectively, and another hybrid specimen HMM 2897 was taken at Inland, Clay Co 24 May 1923. A hybrid was in Howard Co 3 May 2015. In the North Platte River Valley at Lake Ogallala, Keith Co, two of five banded birds which appeared to be Rose-breasted Grosbeaks showed some Black-headed Grosbeak characteristics, while the reverse was true of five of 35 Black-headed Grosbeak types (Brown et al 1996). A hybrid male at Box Butte Reservoir, Dawes Co 8 Aug 1992 was described by Rosche and Rosche (1993). Two birds showing hybrid characteristics were banded at Wildcat Hills NC, Scotts Bluff Co 12 and 24 Sep 2009. An indication of the degree of introgression that occurs at the range boundaries of this species and Black-headed Grosbeak was the angry response and appearance by a previously unseen phenotypic Rose-breasted to a Black-headed tape 4 Jul 2016 in Gosper Co.

Hybrids, along with “pure” Black-headed Grosbeaks, were common in the Republican Valley between Orleans and Oxford 23 Jun 1996; “pure” Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were noted west only to Orleans, Harlan Co. A female Black-headed Grosbeak was with a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak at Harlan Co Reservoir, Harlan Co 13 May 1995 (Silcock 1995). A male with the red color in its bib replaced by lemon-yellow was at Hastings, Adams Co 7 May 2007.


Rose-breasted X Black-headed Grosbeak (hybrid) at Omaha, Douglas Co 1 May 2018. Photo by Richard Pouchert.

Spring:  Apr 24,25,26 <<<>>> May 30,31,31; May 5, 6,9 <<<>>> Jun 6,7,9 (west, west-central)

Migrants generally appear in early May, although early dates are in late Apr. However, one at a Bayard, Morrill Co feeder 22 Apr 2001 had been there about 10 days, and another was early in the west-central in Lincoln Co 1 May 2020. The earliest date for Kansas is 22 Apr (Thompson et al 2011), the same as for Iowa (Kent and Dinsmore 1996).

Late dates above are for areas away from the breeding range. There is a later date of at least two on 9 Jun 2001 at Calamus Reservoir, Loup Co. See Summer.

In the Panhandle it is rare, with reports in the period 12 Apr-7 Jun. As far west as Lake Ogallala it can be fairly numerous in spring; 15 were counted 2 May 1997 (Brown et al 1996).

  • High counts:  80 at Fontenelle Forest, Sarpy Co 3 May 2012, 61 in Sarpy Co 11 May 1996, and 59 there 13 May 1995.

Summer: Bruner et al (1904) stated that Rose-breasted Grosbeak bred in the eastern third of Nebraska, west to about Grand Island, whereas Rapp et al (1958), while noting that the species bred in the eastern half of Nebraska, stated that “There is evidence that this bird is moving westward through the major river valleys.”  Recent information does not support any further significant westward spread, however. Johnsgard (1979) considered the western extent of the breeding range difficult to discern due to hybridization with Black-headed Grosbeak but noted that Rose-breasted Grosbeak bred west to Holt, Garfield, and Phelps Cos, similar to the western extent of the range of phenotypically pure Rose-breasted Grosbeaks noted by Short (1961). The two breeding bird atlases (Mollhoff 2001, 2016) show minimal change between 1984-1989 and 2006-2011, except perhaps for the western edge of the range in the Loup River drainage, the southwest, and in three Panhandle counties (Box Butte, Sheridan, Scotts Bluff); breeding, however, was confirmed west only to Sherman Co.

Currently, Jun-Jul records are broadly-distributed in the eastern half of the state and west in Platte River Valley counties to the North Platte area, including the Republican River Valley west to Harlan Co (see specific river valley information below).

In the Platte River Valley, it has been present since 2005 in increasing numbers in summer in cedar canyons of southeast Lincoln Co, eastern Hayes Co and western Frontier Co at Red Willow Reservoir; it probably breeds throughout this area (T.J. Walker, pers. comm.). Two immatures, identified by their red wing linings, were at Brady, Lincoln Co 4 Aug 2003, but no adults were seen. Black-headed Grosbeak breeds commonly in this area also (Mollhoff 2016).

In the Republican River Valley, it occurs west to the Harlan Co area; Swenk (1936) found it west to Inavale, Webster Co. West of there, Black-headed Grosbeak and hybrids are common.

In the western Loup River drainage, it is scarce; it was considered an “uncommon migrant of uncertain status” at NNF Bessey in the early 1990s (Bray 1994). There is no evidence of breeding, but recent reports from the western drainage are 29 Jun 2016 Greeley Co, two at a Burwell feeder, Garfield Co 11 Jun 2011, two in Loup Co 26 Jun 2010, and three reports in Custer Co 20 Jun 2009, 29 Jun 2016, and 3 Jul 2016. Mollhoff (2016) showed three breeding season reports 2006-2011 in Custer Co, as in the first atlas period 1984-1989 (Mollhoff 2001).

Breeding in the Niobrara River Valley currently is limited to the lower portion, west to the Niobrara Valley Preserve area where Keya Paha, Brown, and Rock Cos meet; the meeting point of the breeding ranges of Rose-breasted and Black-headed Grosbeaks occurs there. As recently as the early 1980s, Brogie and Mossman (1983) found Rose-breasted Grosbeak common in the Niobrara Valley Preserve, but it appeared only as a spring migrant in May, and “Evidently none stayed to nest.”  However, Youngworth (1955) found Rose-breasted Grosbeak breeding in northeast Cherry Co in the 1930s; Swenk (1936) found it breeding in Brown Co. Mollhoff (2016) showed breeding season reports west only to the Niobrara Valley Preserve area, unchanged from 1984-1989 (Mollhoff 2001). There is a Cherry Co report 16 Jun 1977, and recent reports from Fort Niobrara NWR in northeast Cherry Co 28 Jun 2016 and 14 Jul 2016.

In the North Platte River Valley, there are few reports; this area is well within the range of Black-headed Grosbeak, and reports are likely lingering westerly spring migrants, such as the presence of a male at a Mitchell, Scotts Bluff Co feeder with a Black-headed Grosbeak family 24 Jul 2004. However, Brown and Brown (2001) stated that “it presumably breeds in the [Keith Co] area. No nests have been found, but one bird with a brood patch was mist-netted 16 May.” The only other recent reports west of Keith Co are of one in Gering, Scotts Bluff Co 10 Jul 2013 and reports at Crescent Lake NWR, Garden Co 2-13 Jun 2008 and 5 Jun 2010.

Elsewhere in the Panhandle, where Jun-Jul reports are most likely lingering spring migrants or the occasional phenotypically “pure” bird at the west edge of the hybrid zone (Short 1961), there is no evidence of nesting of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks; the few reports are 13 Jun 2009 Chadron SP, Dawes Co, 10-15 Jun 2006 Smith Lake WMA, Sheridan Co, 20 Jun 1998 northeast of Chadron, Dawes Co, 20 Jul 2012 Sowbelly Canyon, Sioux Co, a singing male in Dawes Co 19 Jul 1979 (Rosche 1982), 8 Aug 1992 Dawes Co, and 10 Aug 2014 Wildcat Hills SRA, Scotts Bluff Co.

BBS trend analysis shows this species has declined in Nebraska annually by -2.12% (95% C.I.; -3.61, -0.67) 1966-2015 while during the same period the Black-headed Grosbeak has increased by 1.31% (95% C.I.; -2.44, 5.02) (Sauer et al 2017).

  • Breeding phenology:
    Nest building: 12 May-24 Jun
    Eggs: 22-29 May
    Nestlings: 8-9 Jun
    Fledglings: 24 Jun

Fallsummer <<<>>> Oct 10, 11, 11

Departure begins in late Jul-Aug and is complete by early Oct, with later reports 16 Oct 2013 first fall male photographed Lancaster Co, 19 Oct 1966 and 29 Oct 1989 Douglas-Sarpy Cos, 21 Oct 1966 McPherson Co, 29 Oct 1984 Lancaster Co, and 25 Oct 1975 Lincoln Co.

A Lincoln feeder hosted an immature male 18-25 Oct 2012 and the same feeder a female one day later. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks appear occasionally at feeders in late fall and early winter; these birds apparently attempted to winter: 11 Nov 1974 Douglas-Sarpy Cos, 13 Nov 2000 Kearney, 22 Nov 1973 through mid-Jan 1974 at feeders Douglas-Sarpy Cos (Williams 1974a, 1974b), 1 Dec 2015 basic plumage Lincoln, Lancaster Co, 31 Dec 1980 Boone Co, and 31 Dec 1980 Lancaster Co. One was found on the Lincoln CBC 17 Dec 2011, and an apparent first fall male was photographed at an Omaha feeder 7-19 Dec 2011.

The only Panhandle reports are 24 Aug 2019 Harrison, Sioux Co, 26 Aug 2002 near Bushnell, Kimball Co, 1-7 Sep 2003 male near Mitchell, Scotts Bluff Co, 14 Sep 2009 Chadron, 15 Sep 1983 Garden Co (Williams 1984), and 22 Sep 2018 at Wildcat Hills NC, Scotts Bluff Co (  Three were at Lake Ogallala 26 Aug 2006 and an immature male was there 29 Aug 2006. An adult male was photographed in Lincoln Co 12 Aug 2013.

  • High counts:  40 in Sarpy Co 9 Sep 1995.


BBS: Breeding Bird Survey
CBC: Christmas Bird Count
HMM: Hastings Municipal Museum
NC: Nature Center
NNF: Nebraska National Forest
NWR: National Wildlife Refuge
SP: State Park
SRA: State Recreation Area
UNSM: University of Nebraska State Museum


Photograph (top) of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak at Fontenelle Forest, Sarpy Co 21 May 2014 by Phil Swanson.

Literature Cited

Anderson, B.W., and R.J. Daugherty. 1974. Characteristics and reproductive biology of grosbeaks (Pheucticus) in the hybrid zone in South Dakota. Wilson Bulletin 86: 1-11.

American Ornithologists’ Union [AOU]. 1983. The AOU Check-list of North American birds, 6th ed. Allen Press, Lawrence, Kansas, USA.

Bray, T.E., B.K. Padelford, and W.R. Silcock. 1986. The birds of Nebraska: A critically evaluated list. Published by the authors, Bellevue, Nebraska, USA.

Brogie, M.A., and M.J. Mossman. 1983. Spring and summer birds of the Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska: An annotated checklist. NBR 51: 44-51.

Brown, C.R., M.B. Brown, P.A. Johnsgard, J. Kren, and W.C. Scharf. 1996. Birds of the Cedar Point Biological Station area, Keith and Garden Counties, Nebraska: Seasonal occurrence and breeding data. Transactions of the Nebraska Academy of Sciences 23: 91-108.

Brown, C.R., and M.B. Brown. 2001. Birds of the Cedar Point Biological Station. Occasional Papers of the Cedar Point Biological Station, No. 1.

Brown, C.R., M.B. Brown, P.A. Johnsgard, J. Kren, and W.C. Scharf. 1996. Birds of the Cedar Point Biological Station area, Keith and Garden Counties, Nebraska: Seasonal occurrence and breeding data. Transactions of the Nebraska Academy of Sciences 23: 91-108.

Brown, M.B., S.J. Dinsmore, and C.R. Brown. 2012. Birds of Southwestern Nebraska. Conservation and Survey Division, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Nebraska—Lincoln, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Bruner, L., R.H. Wolcott, and M.H. Swenk. 1904. A preliminary review of the birds of Nebraska, with synopses. Klopp and Bartlett, Omaha, Nebraska, USA.

Johnsgard, P.A. 1979. Birds of the Great Plains: breeding species and their distribution.  University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Kent, T.H., and J.J. Dinsmore. 1996. Birds in Iowa. Publshed by the authors, Iowa City and Ames, Iowa, USA.

Kroodsma, R. L. 1974b. Hybridization in grosbeaks (Pheucticus) in North Dakota. Wilson Bulletin 86: 230-236.

Mayr, E., and L.L. Short. 1970. Species taxa of North American birds, a contribution to avian systematics.   Publications of the Nuttall Ornithological Club, No. 9. Nuttall Ornithological Club, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

Mollhoff, W.J. 2001. The Nebraska Breeding Bird Atlas 1984-1989. Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union Occasional Papers No. 7. Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Mollhoff, W.J. 2016. The Second Nebraska Breeding Bird Atlas. Bull. Univ. Nebraska State Museum Vol 29. University of Nebraska State Museum, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Pyle, P. 1997. Identification Guide to North American Birds. Part I, Columbidae to Ploceidae. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas, California, USA.

Rapp, W.F. Jr., J.L.C. Rapp, H.E. Baumgarten, and R.A. Moser. 1958. Revised checklist of Nebraska birds. Occasional Papers 5, Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union, Crete, Nebraska, USA.

Rosche, R.C. 1982. Birds of northwestern Nebraska and southwestern South Dakota, an annotated checklist. Cottonwood Press, Crawford, Nebraska, USA.

Rosche, R.C. 1994. Birds of the Lake McConaughy area and the North Platte River valley, Nebraska.  Published by the author, Chadron, Nebraska, USA.

Sauer, J.R., D.K. Niven, J.E. Hines, D.J. Ziolkowski, Jr, K.L. Pardieck, J.E. Fallon, and W.A. Link. 2017.  The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966 – 2015 (Nebraska). Version 2.07. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, Maryland, USA.

Short, L.L., Jr. 1961. Notes on bird distribution in the central Plains. NBR 29: 2-22.

Sibley, C.G., and B.L. Monroe, Jr. 1990. Distribution and taxonomy of birds of the world.  Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut, USA.

Silcock, W.R. 1995. Spring Field Report, March-May 1995. NBR 63: 34-60.

Swenk, M.H. 1936. A study of the distribution, migration, and hybridism of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Rocky Mountain Black-headed Grosbeak in the Missouri Valley region. NBR 4: 27-40.

Thompson, M.C., C.A. Ely, B. Gress, C. Otte, S.T. Patti, D. Seibel, and E.A. Young. 2011. Birds of Kansas.  University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, USA.

West, D.A. 1962. Hybridization in the grosbeaks (Pheucticus) of the Great Plains. Auk 79: 399-424.

Williams, F. 1974a. Southern Great Plains Region. American Birds 28: 70-76.

Williams, F. 1974b. Southern Great Plains Region. American Birds 28: 656-660.

Williams, F. 1984. Southern Great Plains Region. American Birds 38: 218-221.

Wyatt, V.E. and C.M. Francis. 2020. Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Youngworth, W. 1955. Some birds of the Quicourt Valley. NBR 23: 29-34.

Recommended Citation

Silcock, W.R., and J.G. Jorgensen.  2020.  Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus). In Birds of Nebraska — Online.

Birds of Nebraska – Online

Updated 2 Sep 2020