Archived Mountain Voices

The feisty, showy and talented grosbeak

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about scarlet tanagers, a showy rather common species I assumed most were familiar with. But at least 10 readers emailed or otherwise contacted me to say they had located and seen their first scarlet tanager because I had described their vocalizations. In that regard, let’s see what we can do with rose-breasted grosbeaks.


Those birds that migrate hundreds of miles across the Gulf of Mexico from Central and South America to nest in the United States and Canada are known as the neotropical migrants. Each spring a number of these migrants breed here in the mountains of Western North Carolina. None is more worthy of your acquaintance than the rose-breasted grosbeak. No other bird in our avifauna is more striking in appearance, distinctive in its singing or feisty.

To get to know the rose-breasted grosbeak, you’ll have to visit the higher elevations where – from late April into June – they locate their nests at between 3,200 and 5,000 feet. When the female is on the nest, the male will often perch nearby and sing. Some females (humans included) had probably just as soon that their mates not sing to them. But this fellow can really sing.

I like the way Roger Tory Peterson describes the rose-breasted’s voice: “Song, rising and falling passages; resembles robin’s song, but mellower, given with more feeling (as if a robin has taken voice lessons).” The scarlet tanager sounds like a robin with a sore raspy throat.

So, if you’re up in the high country of the Smokies or maybe at an overlook along the Blue Ridge Parkway or in downtown Highlands (the rose-breasted capital of the southern mountains) and you hear grand opera caliber singing  coming from the woods, get out your binoculars and take a look. The bird’s appearance fully lives up to its voice.

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Adult males in breeding plumage have shiny black heads and throats and boldly patterned black-and-white wings, while the underparts are white. But what’ll catch your eye is the triangular carmine-red breast. Farmers used to call the bird “throat-cut” because of this vivid somewhat irregular marking.

There’s no mistaking the male red-breasted; and while his mate is less grandly marked – having brown upperparts with a striped crown and streaky underparts – she, too, has the same bustling vitality and mannerisms. There’s a certain sturdy dignity and forcefulness about this species. They always seem to be going about their business in a workmanlike yet cheerful manner.

They also have vile tempers when disrupted. My wife and I used to spend a week or two each April assisting with the migrant bird study being conducted by the National Park Service (with National Geographic Society funding) on East Ship Island about 10-miles off the Mississippi coast from Biloxi. We helped net, weigh, measure, band, and release maybe 300 to 400 birds each spring, mostly warblers.

Netted birds are generally docile, even when in hand. Rose-breasted grosbeaks become positively livid from the moment they hit the net until well after they’re set free. They take the whole business personally, fighting back with every weapon at their disposal. And the bird is well-armed.  

Its powerful stout beak – normally utilized to break open seeds and other fruits – clamps down on a careless worker’s finger with the force of a pair of vise-pliers, drawing blood. You have to pry or tear them loose. After just one encounter with an angry rose-breasted, you learn to handle this species with circumspection.

Checking the nets after Elizabeth had been along before me, I would often find them bare except for a screaming red-breasted. That was her way of dealing with the grosbeak problem. My trick was to break off a twig and let the bird clamp down on that instead of my finger. Now and then, one would drop the twig and latch onto the flesh between thumb and forefinger.

One can’t help but admire a bird that flies so far to nest, presents itself in striking plumage, sings like a prima donna on opening night, and stands up for its rights with such vigor.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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