Species profile: Notable Rose-breasted Grosbeaks
Rose-breasted Grosbeaks make memorable springtime impressions and have launched at least one professional birding career
Published: July 1, 2002
|Confessions are supposedly good for the soul. Here's one about how my father, Hal H. Harrison, shamefully began his professional birding career. When he was in grade school, in the early 1900s, before birds were protected, he shot a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak to use as his first taxidermy mount.|
"The advertisements told me how simple it was to stuff birds (after so many easy lessons at so much for the course). Before enrolling, however, I thought it might be well to experiment. That's when the singing male grosbeak dropped from his perch with a pellet from an air rifle in his already crimson breast," Dad told me.
"Within an hour, all the glamour of taxidermy had disappeared, and into the family garbage can I dropped the torn, bloodstained feathers of the once lovely bird. I can still remember the feeling of remorse that came over me as I gave up in sickening disgust," he said. But the experience served him well (and me, too) for the next 80 years, during which he shot birds only with a camera. He realized that no stuffed bird would ever look as beautiful as a well-executed photograph of it. Thus, Hal H. Harrison became a bird photographer and writer, forever trying to bring life to his films and writings about birds such as the Rose-breasted Grosbeak.
Welcome Spring Visitors
It is strange that Rose-breasted Grosbeaks have been a significant part of my life as well. I look forward each spring to their arrival in the North. During this time, males and females frequent my feeders to gorge on sunflower seeds, drink and bathe in my bird ponds, and sing their melodious songs from the basswood trees around my house.
The first arrivals from the South, during the first week in May, are usually a small group of males that peacefully share the cracked sunflower seeds in the tray feeders. They seem compatible for the first week or so, or until the females arrive. Then the bachelor party breaks up, and each male stakes out his own territory to which he tries to attract a female.
I have watched two males fight fiercely over a female, hovering near her and singing at the same time. Their song is a lovely, long, broken carol, similar to the song of an American Robin, but sweeter and more varied. It also resembles the Scarlet Tanager's series of notes - querit queer query queereo queer - but lacks its hoarseness. The female sings as well, but hers is a softer, shorter song. The male and female's alarm note is an unmistakable metallic kink, while their flight call is an airy, nasal wheek.
Once bonded, a pair has an affectionate courtship, often touching bills and exchanging food. It is during courtship fluttering that the male reveals the pink linings of his underwings. He shows off his white wing patches, spreads his tail, and flaps his wing with shallow beats. And when he flies away, his wings seem to be twirling, which is an illusion caused by the rapid movement of the black wings with large white spots.
Conversely, female Rose-breasteds are unbelievably drab, apparently to camouflage them when they tend to eggs and young. The female has been aptly described as "an overgrown sparrow," with overall brown streaking above and below. The only bright color she has is the buffy-yellow in the linings under her wings, colors that show only in flight. Both sexes have such large "gross-beaks" that they appear to be huge noses. But like other large finches, including Northern Cardinals, those heavy bills are used to crack seed shells efficiently and effectively. Don't ever allow yourself to be bitten by a grosbeak. It will almost always draw blood.
Considering how bright the male is in both appearance and song, Rose-breasted Grosbeak pairs are surprisingly evasive in their nesting behavior. As many years as there have been youngsters raised around my house, I have never seen a nest. Maybe that's because it is such a flimsy twig nest. The four, bluish-green dotted eggs show through the cup-shaped nest that is built in the fork of a deciduous tree, 10 to 15 feet above the ground. Strangely, the brightly colored male shares the 12- to 14-day incubation of the eggs, and both parents sometimes sing while they are on the nest.
Though Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are best known for their diet of seeds, when there are young to feed, the diet shifts to insects. Not only insects for the youngsters, but insects for themselves, too. Caterpillars, beetles, grasshoppers, moths and some buds and fruit are their natural summertime foods. With that kind of a diet, fed every few minutes, the four youngsters are fully feathered and ready to leave the nest in just 9 to 12 days after hatching. But it takes a few more days for them to learn to fly. In the meantime, they hop around the tree branches and beg for food. Shrill calls of teee-yooo, teee-yooo teee-yooo spout out of the tiny birds' bills. That's when I hate Rose-breasted Grosbeaks!
Most of the time they are wonderful and lovely birds, but when the young leave the nest, they drive me crazy. They sit in the basswoods and call and call and call mournful, off-key notes. The calling is effective in getting their parents to feed them, but after the thousandth or so endless bleat, it gets to me.
Only nightfall brings a merciful end to the youngsters' plaintive chords. At least until dawn, and then it begins anew. It goes on for several weeks, until I'm about ready to shoot them … must be in my genes. But all is forgiven when the fledglings become juveniles and quiet down. At this stage of life, they resemble their mothers. Close inspection, however, will reveal that the juvenile males already have the pink underwing linings, while the juvenile females have yellow feathers there like their mothers.
I know that the adult males are about to disappear for the year when they begin to look shabby, lacking the brilliant, crisp, black, white, and red plumages. And then one fall day, I realize that I haven't seen an adult Rose-breasted at the feeders for several days. They have left, migrating at night. Yet the juveniles linger for several more weeks before departing for unknown destinations in southern Mexico, Central and northern South America, Puerto Rico, and the West Indies. It will be a long winter for me before the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks appear again at my tray feeders.
Did You Know?
All in the Family: The Rose-breasted Grosbeak is one of five grosbeak species regularly found in North America. The Rose-breasted, Black-headed, and Blue Grosbeak - members of the Cardinalinae family - are long-distance, Neotropical migrants. The Pine and Evening Grosbeaks - members of the Fringillidae family - migrate short distances.
Close Relations: The Black-headed Grosbeak in the West is very closely related to the Rose-breasted Grosbeak in the East, and the two hybridize where their ranges overlap in the Great Plains. The females of the two species are almost identical. Together, the two species cover nearly all the U.S. and southern Canada during spring and summer.
Family Planning: While the female is the primary nest builder, both males and females incubate their purple-spotted eggs on the nest. One or two broods per season are raised with four hatchlings being the most common number of offspring.
Father Knows Best: When two broods are produced in one season, the male cares for the first fledglings while his mate goes off to build another new cup-shaped nest.
Lifespan: In the wild, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks may live an average of 4 to 6 years. One was recorded at 9 years in the wild. A captive bird lived to 24.
Picky Eater: Rose-breasted Grosbeaks will sometimes hover to pick an insect off a leaf or tree trunk, or fly out from a tree perch like a flycatcher to snap up a flying insect. Insects make up about half the annual diet of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak.
Good Guys: Rose-breasteds are considered to be beneficial to farmers since they consume potato beetles and larvae.
Naming Names: Also called common grosbeak, potato-bug bird, summer grosbeak, and throat-cut bird.
|If you live in the northeastern third of the United States or in southern Canada, it should be easy to attract Rose-breasted Grosbeaks to your yard during spring and summer. If you already have Northern Cardinals as regular visitors during this time of year, then the grosbeaks should be nearby, too. These crimson-breasted songbirds require the same kinds of foods, feeders, and natural habitats as cardinals. |
Favorite Habitats and Cover: Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are found in orchards, swamp borders, thickets, suburban gardens, and backyards containing open deciduous or mixed woodlands, with edges and openings.
Favorite Feeder Food: Rose-breasted Grosbeaks prefer sunflower seeds that are hulled or cracked to a medium grade. They will also eat safflower seed.
Favorite Feeders: Like Northern Cardinals, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks prefer to consume their favorite feeder foods from trays or hopper feeders that have wide rims. These provide solid footholds for the birds. Rose-breasteds will not usually eat from tube feeders with tiny perches.
Favorite Backyard Features: Adults and their fledglings spend considerable time drinking and bathing in bird baths, but their favorite backyard feature is an open tray feeder filled with cracked sunflower seeds. Even late in the summer, when the adults have already migrated south, juvenile Rose-breasteds will remain patrons of the feeders.
|George H. Harrison writes from his home in Hubertus, Wisconsin.||