Saltators are large, long-tailed, long-legged tanagers with a large, heavy, finch-like bill; the culmen typically is slightly decurved. Black-headed Saltator is the largest species in the genus. This species is geographically variable, but in all populations the head is black or black and dark gray, with a narrow white supercilium, and a pale throat; in most populations the throat is white, but it is pale cinnamon in the subspecies of southeastern Mexico. The back, wings, and tail are olive green. The breast, belly, and flanks are gray, with tawny undertail coverts; in some subspecies the pale throat is bordered below by a broad black breastband, but in other populations the breastband is reduced or lacking.
Buff-throated Saltator (Saltator maximus) has broad geographic overlap with Black-headed Saltator, and is superficially similar. Buff-throated Saltator is smaller than Black-headed, however, is less vocal, and usually is solitary. The throat of Buff-throated Saltator always is buff (although sometimes a rather pale shade of buff); throughout most of its range, the throat of Black-headed Saltator is very white. The crown of Buff-throated Saltator usually is gray, not black, and the nape of Buff-throated Saltator tends to merge more gradually into the olive upperparts, whereas on Black-headed Saltator the black of the crown contrasts more strongly with the olive back. Grayish Saltator (Saltator coerulescens) also overlaps with Black-headed Saltator, but is smaller, with a gray head and gray (not olive) upperparts.
The following description is based on Ridgway (1901), and refers to nominate atriceps; see also Geographic Variation:
Adult: Sexes similar. Crown black, sharply defined posteriorly. Sides of head mostly black, becoming grayish or mixed black and gray below the eyes and on part of the malar region. A narrow supercilium extends from the forecrown (just above the bill) to just past the eye; the supercilium is gray anteriorly, but becomes white above the eyes. Back, scapulars, wings, rump, uppertail coverts, and tail bright yellowish olive green, brightest on the tail. Shaft of rectrices and remiges are black; inner webs of remiges and narrow terminal portion of outer primaries dusky. Chin and sides of throat are broadly black, center of throat and the upper breast white, bordered below by a broad semicircular band of black across the breast, connecting with the black bordering the sides of the throat. Breast and belly ash gray, paler distally, and tinged with brown on the lower flanks. Tibial feathers brown or pale olive. Undertail coverts orange ochraceous, the feathers more olivaceous medially.
Immature: Similar to adult, but black of head and breast duller, and less sharply defined; white throat patch smaller and less sharply defined, with dusky mottling; breast scaled or smudged with dusky; supercilium dull and indistinct; and upperparts darker (Ridgway 1901, Stiles and Skutch 1989).
There is very little information on molts in Black-headed Saltator, but apparently this species follows the Complex Basic strategy (Dickey and van Rossem 1938); in El Salvador, the prebasic molt primarily occurs in August and September, and is completed by mid-October (Dickey and van Rossem 1938). The extent of the preformative molt has not been described.
Iris: brownish red or reddish brown in adults; brown in juveniles
Bill: black in adults; in juveniles, the mandible and the tip of the maxilla are dingy, yellowish-flesh
Tarsi and toes: dark horn, dusky
Bare parts color data from Dickey and van Rossem (1938) and Wetmore et al. (1984).
Total length: 24 cm (Stiles and Skutch 1989), 25.5-28 cm (Howell and Webb 1995)
nominate atriceps (from Ridgway 1901)
male (n = 13)
wing length: mean 121.16 mm (range 107.44-126.49 mm)
tail length: mean 121.41 mm (range 112.27-132.08 mm)
bill length (exposed culmen): mean 23.88 mm (range 23.11-25.40 mm)
depth of bill at base: mean 14.22 mm (range 13.21-15.24 mm)
tarsus length: mean 30.23 mm (range 28.45-30.99 mm)
female (n = 12)
wing length: mean 114.30 mm (range 106.93-121.67 mm)
tail length: mean 116.59 mm (range 108.46-124.71 mm)
bill length (exposed culmen): mean 22.35 mm (range 20.83-25.91 mm)
depth of bill at base: mean 13.97 mm (range 13.21-15.49 mm)
tarsus length: mean 28.96 mm (range 27.69-30.23 mm)
lacertosus (from Wetmore et al. 1984)
male (n = 10
wing length: mean 115.7 mm (range 112.0-119.6 mm)
tail length: mean 111.0 mm (range 103.3-119.1 mm)
bill length (culmen from base): mean 26.8 mm (range 25.5-27.8 mm)
tarsus length: mean 28.1 mm (range 27.1-29.6 mm)
female (n = 10)
wing length: mean 111.2 mm (range 103.0-115.8 mm)
tail length: mean 109.0 mm (range 99.5-120.4 mm)
bill length (exposed culmen): mean 26.5 mm (range 24.5-27.9 mm)
tarsus length: mean 27.3 mm (range 24.5-29.0 mm)
atriceps (from Paynter 1955, Smithe and Paynter 1963, Russell 1964)
male: mean 79.2 ± 2.86 g (range 75.9-83.1 g, n = 7)
female: mean 87.1 ± 3.75 g (range 81.7-93.4 g, n = 7)
raptor (from Paynter 1955)
male: mean 80.45 ± 2.13 g (range 71.2-91.2 g, n = 9)
female: mean 76.16 ± 2.51 g (range 68.2-82.0 g, n = 5)