Archived Mountain Voices

Rose-breasted grosbeaks on the move through the Smokies

mtnvoicesMigrating rose-breasted grosbeaks have been appearing at feeders throughout the Smokies region in recent weeks.

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. No other bird in our avifauna is more striking in appearance.

To get to know the rose-breasted grosbeak during the breeding season, you’ll have to visit the higher elevations where — from late April into May — 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.

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).”

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, cheerful manner.

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During fall migration these birds can been seen at the lowest elevations. Females are often accompanied by both immature females and males. Sometimes, as is the instance this fall, there are mixed flocks of both males and females.

Grosbeaks rarely sing during migration. But their call note is a very metallic “chink – chink – chink.”

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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