Blue grosbeaks are from the Cardinalidae family, closely related to cardinals and bunting songbirds. These birds have royal blue plumage, a silver beak, and some black and brown bars on their wings. They are typically found in Southern states and migrate to Mexico yearly. In the wild, blue grosbeaks live 7 years on average.
The blue grosbeak lives on most birdwatchers’ bucket lists. Their striking blue plumage, musical warbling, and elusive nature make them a sight to behold. While blue grosbeak numbers continue to rise, sightings are still incredibly rare. These elusive songbirds thrive in wide open spaces in the southern portion of North America during the breeding season and migrate across the Gulf of Mexico in late summer to their wintering grounds.
They have striking deep blue plumage, large triangular beaks, and a musical mating call that starts as early as late April. Spotting a blue grosbeak is a challenge since they are notoriously elusive birds. However, understanding their habitats, nesting behavior, and migration patterns is the first step to tracking them down!
Features of the Blue Grosbeak
There’s no mistaking the blue grosbeak (passerina Caerulea), it’s a member of the Cardinalidae family and shares many similarities with its more common cousin, the Northern cardinal. Blue grosbeaks have a triangular silver and black beak that takes up most of its face and striking deep blue plumage, these North American birds are incredibly unique and rare.
The blue grosbeak looks similar to a bluebird or an indigo bunting (lazuli bunting) with deep blue feathers, blue underparts, and black and orange wing bars. It’s common to mistake one of these famous blue songbirds as a blue grosbeak, but a few features are unique to this bird species. Overall, the blue grosbeak is significantly larger than a bunting or a bluebird and is of similar size to a Northern cardinal. If it looks like a cardinal, but it’s blue- it’s a blue grosbeak!
Natural Habitats of the Blue Grosbeak
Unlike other species of grosbeaks (such as the pine grosbeak), these songbirds live in more open areas with smaller trees and plenty of freshwater sources. If you want to spot a blue grosbeak in the wild, stick to shrubby thickets, tangles, open fields along the roadside, small trees, woodland edges, or emerging forests. During the non-breeding season, blue grosbeaks are often found in wide open spaces in large flocks that make them easier to spot by birdwatchers.
It’s also important to note that blue grosbeaks also hang around quality food sources. Their diet is comprised primarily of insects in the summer, and they switch to seeds when insects aren’t as bountiful. They eat anything from caterpillars to snails or offerings from backyard feeders. If you want to attract blue grosbeaks to your backyard, they prefer platform bird-feeders over tube feeders and eat sunflower seeds, cracked corn, and nuts.
Range and Migration
Blue grosbeaks spend the breeding season in the southern portion of the United States in Texas and Florida and migrate over the Gulf of Mexico to the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America. While they are a warm-weather bird, some blue grosbeaks have been spotted as far north as New England or South Dakota, although those sightings are rare.
They arrive in their breeding ground late into summer, and birdwatchers can hear their warbling mating calls as late as July. After breeding season, these short-distance migrants head for their wintering grounds in late August. These songbirds are very secretive, so the best time to catch a glimpse is often during fall migration.
Lifespan and Mating Rituals
The lifespan of the blue grosbeak is around seven years, although predators, climate, and available food sources may limit their life. To attract a male, the male Blue Grosbeak perches on a nearby tree branch or thicket and sings a blurry warbling song that lasts up to three seconds. Paired male and female Blue Grosbeaks often mate monogamously for a single breeding season and raise two broods per season. Once the female selects her mate for the season, she begins building her nest.
Nesting and Eggs
Blue grosbeaks breed in wide open spaces, and the female builds her nest low in shrubs or thickets positioned only a few feet off the ground. The female builds her nest using materials such as rootlets, grass, twigs, and snakeskin on some occasions. She lays between three to five eggs per clutch and incubates the eggs while the male blue grosbeak brings her food. The incubation period of the pale blue eggs takes up to two weeks. After they hatch, both parents take turns feeding and raising nestlings.
Nestlings and Fledglings
Female and male blue grosbeaks feed their young a protein-rich diet from insects such as snails, caterpillars, mealworms, and spiders. Both parents take turns feeding their young wild birds when nestlings are still in the nest. After they leave the nest, the male feeds young fledglings while the female blue grosbeak builds on her second (and final) nest of the breeding season before migrating to Central America for their wintering grounds.
Why Are Blue Grosbeaks So Rare?
Sighting a blue grosbeak is rare, but it’s not because they are an endangered bird. Blue grosbeak populations have risen since the 1800s, and their conservation status is considered the least concern. The truth is, even experienced ornithologists don’t quite understand why blue grosbeak sightings are so rare. These beautiful yet elusive birds are among the most remarkable sightings and land on every birder’s bucket list! If you spot a blue grosbeak, it’s a special day.