The black-headed grosbeak is one of very few predators of monarch butterflies. These seasonally-familiar west coast cardinals are specially adapted to digest the toxic butterflies.
A Fragile Relationship
To set the stage for understanding the black-headed grosbeak, we must first understand a bit about the monarch butterfly.
This painting is part of my ongoing series in tribute to the life cycle of the monarch butterfly. Here on the central coast of California, our winters are typically mild and wet: a feature of our mediterranean climate. This gentle climate attracts monarch butterflies, who are often received as revered guests during our winters. These butterflies are part of the western monarch group, meaning their population is separate from those east of the Rocky mountains. They have established their own migratory patterns and behaviors.
The west coast of North America attracts many other migratory visitors due to its climate. It is famously part of the Pacific flyway, a migratory route for hundreds of species of birds which historically used the wetland and coastal resources of this bioregion to replenish and rest along their journeys. Black-headed grosbeaks are among these migratory residents, although they do not travel from the far north; they instead travel from their overwintering grounds in Mexico.
Point Blue Conservation Science has created an interactive map of the Pacific flyway. Click the button below to check it out:
The monarch butterfly is intricately linked to the asclepias plant, commonly called milkweed. The insects' migratory pattern is influenced by the distribution of this plant, and their current status, approaching the edge of extinction, is connected to the loss of this plant across the United States' agricultural lands.
Industrial agriculture as it has been practiced since at least the 1950s (and possibly agriculture in general, much longer than that) is antithetical to ecological health. Its primary methodology involves destroying habitat to make room for human food crops. Unfortunately, many species of animals and plants have been directly affected by these practices. The monarch butterfly is one of them.
Click the button below to read in detail about my monarch & milkweed painting, in which I discuss the butterfly's relationship with the plant.
Because it represents a cosmic exchange of energy which sustains life and creates growth and change, food is a sacred relationship. I often use numinous painting techniques from Orthodox Christian iconography and from ancient rock art to reinforce this theme of sacred relationship.
A male black-headed grosbeak. Photograph by ientil.
The black-headed grosbeak is an emblem of connection. This bird, a member of the cardinalidae (the cardinal family), is a common sight at California bird feeders during the migratory season (fall through winter and early spring). They are known, along with orioles, for their love of grape jelly and other sugary treats.
Many of us are familiar with the grosbeak for its fondness of fruits and seeds, but the male's bright coloration is an echo of another of its favorite foods: the monarch butterfly.
Because monarchs absorb and store a poison called cardenolide from the milkweed plant, they are toxic to eat. The poison interferes with the cellular membranes in animal tissues, but as the butterflies evolved they developed a series of mutations which allow them to avoid the effects of this poison.
About cardenolide poison
Very few animals can prey on monarchs as a result of this adaptation. It allows the butterflies to take advantage of a plentiful (or once-plentiful) food source: milkweed, while also granting them protection from predation.
Scientific American published a 2019 article going into detail about how Monarchs co-evolved with the toxic asclepias plant.
This evolutionary change has created an interesting ripple effect in the ecosystems surrounding monarchs. The butterflies are not the only species to undergo the series of mutations needed to deal with the presence of toxic cardenolides; the black-headed grosbeak has exhibited the same changes in its DNA. In effect, the monarch's protection from predation has created an "evolutionary incentive" for the same mutation to appear in other organisms higher up the food chain. Where there is an underexploited resource, natural selection finds a way to take advantage of it.
In this sense, the grosbeak is an "evolutionary shadow" of a monarch butterfly and a milkweed plant. The behavior patterns and physiology of this animal have been shaped by natural selection in response to the characteristics of the monarch, who in turn was shaped by the plentiful and underexploited resource of the toxic asclepias plant: a heart-stopping poison is responsible for the existence of a unique and beautiful species of cardinal.
Painted With Makeup
Pheucticus melanocephalus [fay-YOOK-tick-us melon-o-SEF-all-us] means "painted with makeup, black head". Scientific names are often simply descriptions of appearance or behavior, rendered in greek, latin, or mixtures of both.
Like the western monarch, the black-headed grosbeak is a migratory visitor who spends its breeding season in the Pacific Northwest. While monarchs rely on milkweed in open field and meadow habitats, grosbeaks prefer dense foliage for cover, foraging, and nest building. Because of this preference, they can be challenging to spot, unless they are drawn out by berries or other sugary snacks.
The male grosbeak is readily identifiable by his high-contrast plumage in black, white, and orange. As with many songbirds, the female displays more camouflaged feather patterns. Grosbeaks are well-loved for their songs, which are often compared to those of the American robin.
Male black-headed grosbeak. Video by All About Birds.
Female black-headed grosbeak. Photograph by Bettina Arrigoni.
A Web of Life
I chose to paint the grosbeak surrounded by a set of symbols representing a few of its various ecological connections. The insect in its bill, being eaten, is of course the monarch butterfly on whom it specializes. Above the monarch and the grosbeak are the three stars I use to represent the "aliveness" of animals; in this depiction, the life of the monarch is transferring its star-energy into the life of the grosbeak. These small life-stars are tethered to an ancestral star somewhere further back in the lineage of the cosmos.
The ancestral star is a theme I incorporate in most of my paintings. It is often painted in a red ochre color to represent the earliest pigments used by humans in artmaking and decoration. Stars and the color of red ochre are linked together by the laws of physics.
Check out this classic short article from Smithsonian Magazine explaining the celestial reason why red pigments are plentiful and have often been favored.
Inside the grosbeak's body is a different insect, a beetle. This symbolism is a tradition in many art forms, but is often particularly highlighted in the Woodland style, a North American Indigenous art style popularized by the great Ojibway artist Norval Morrisseau. In Woodland art, which fuses a revival of ancient Great Lakes region rock art and birch-scroll painting with European modernism (Morrisseau cited Picasso as a great influence alongside the ancestral stories of his people), animals are often depicted with other animals inside of them.
In my paintings, I typically show these interior animals and plants as symbols of the food chain. Food is the primary vehicle by which star energy moves through plant and animal bodies. Because it represents a cosmic exchange of energy which sustains life and creates growth and change, food is a sacred relationship. I often use numinous painting techniques from Orthodox Christian iconography and from ancient rock art to reinforce this theme of sacred relationship.
The black-headed grosbeak print is available as a limited-edition acrylic mount, shown here, for $456. It is also available as a standard fine art print.
Finally, surrounding the grosbeak are the branches of a Monterey cypress tree. Grosbeaks prefer areas with plenty of foliage for cover; in our bioregion here on the coast of California the species of tree most likely to provide natural habitat for the grosbeak and the monarch is the Monterey cypress. These cone-bearing trees grow thick and dense sprays of tightly-wrapped scaly leaves, providing habitat for insects and the animals who prey on them, as well as creating shelter for many mammals (raccoons sleep in their branches) and birds (all types from songbirds to raptors and shorebirds roost and nest in them).
Click the images below to view my other Monterey cypress paintings.
Resources about Grosbeaks
My work is about paying respect to the nonhuman beings who surround us, who enrich our lives, and who we depend upon for our existence.
More than just this, my work is a celebration of the connections between living beings. The most sacred connection between beings is the relationship of eater and eaten: the giving of the body's life to sustain the life of another. This is the ultimate act of generosity and nonattachment; it represents a fundamental understanding that life is not an array of separate, compartmentalized entities struggling against one another, but rather that life is a continuous flow of shared energy, and that each individual represents only one brief configuration of that flowing energy.
The life of the monarch does not belong to the monarch; it is a temporary configuration of molecules and energy. Likewise, the grosbeak, who receives this energy by consuming the monarch, also does not own or command it. It simply takes its turn absorbing it, holding it, and ultimately passing it along to the next eater. Life is shared across time and space, a web of light marked by the positions of the stars.
I hope that my visions of life can become tapestries of shared storytelling for all of us who live together on this planet. It is so important to remember that we are not separate from all of the nonhumans who surround us in this world. The more we share stories of kinship and remembrance, the more we will cherish that which sustains us and makes life vibrant.
Thanks for spending a bit of your time with me. If you'd like to stay in touch, I'd love to send you occasional e-mail updates about my work. You can subscribe here.
Words & images by Derek Schultz, except where credit is given.
First salutations to the stars – thanks to all relatives and ancestors – may all beings be happy and free.