On April 27, a male rose-breasted grosbeak appeared on a feeder just outside my office window.
About the size of a cardinal, but more barrel chested, it was in fresh breeding plumage — black head and back, black wings with two prominent white wing bars, and white belly below an inverted crimson triangle on the chest.
The huge pale bill is unmistakable. And in flight, the white outer tail feathers flash, and the under wing feathers are quite rosy.
It is a spectacular bird. I always look forward to seeing at least one for a few days each spring.
Usually, these grosbeaks stay for just a short time, and then they disappear. Some no doubt continue north, but some stay and nest in our woods.
I hear them singing well into June, but they prefer to stay hidden in the treetops. But for some reason I’ve never been able to explain, they only come to the feeders for a few days. Until this year.
I’ve had rose-breasted grosbeaks on my feeders every day since April 27. The next day four adult males shared a feeder for about two minutes. Since then, I’ve usually seen singles, and sometimes pairs of males and females. Females are as drab as males are gaudy. They look like a female house finch on steroids.
Watch your feeders over the next two weeks. Check out any chunky black, white, and red birds closely. And inspect any oversized sparrows carefully.
Rose-breasted grosbeaks can also be easily identified by sound. Sing-song musical phrases remind me of a robin song, but the pace is faster. Someone once told me to listen for a “robin in a hurry.”
Both sexes sing, and males are one of the few songbirds known to sing while incubating eggs on the nest. It’s a quiet song and probably serves to let the female know that all is well on the home front.
Habitat and diet
The eastern deciduous forest is the primary habitat of these striking birds. Though they live within the forest interior, they are easiest to find along streams and the edges of fields and forests. You might also find them in wooded backyards, parks and golf courses.
Though a grosbeak’s bill is clearly designed to crack seeds, seeds account for only about half of their diet. At backyard feeders, they prefer sunflower seeds.
The balance of their diet consists of insects and fruits. During the breeding season, about 75 percent of the foods they eat are insects. They crush live prey with their massive bill, especially before feeding nestlings.
The first males to arrive each spring are usually the ones that remain to nest. Females arrive a few days after males. Later arriving males usually stay for just a few days, and then move on farther north to nest.
Nest building begins in mid-May and takes three to five days. Nests are usually placed on vertical forks of tree branches and can range from 3 feet to 60 feet above the ground. The nest itself is an open cup constructed of small sticks, twigs, weed stems, and grasses. It is then lined with finer plant material.
Clutch size varies from three to five eggs, and both parents incubate the eggs for about 12 days. The female incubates the eggs at night. During the day, the male takes a 4- or 5-hour shift while the female forages. When not incubating, the male defends the territory, feeds, and collects food for his mate.
After the eggs hatch, both parents share the responsibility for feeding and brooding the young. Nestling grosbeaks remain in the nest for nine to 12 days before fledging. Rose-breasted grosbeaks typically raise one brood per year.
As spring leaf out continues, rose-breasted grosbeaks will get increasingly difficult to find in the treetops. They will remain in the area until mid to late August before heading south to Mexico, Central America, and as far south as Ecuador.
If you can get a good look at one of these birds this spring, preferably at a feeder, you’ll understand why rose-breasted grosbeaks have become my favorite feeder bird
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