Rose-breasted grosbeaks at backyard feeders

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Rose-breasted grosbeak
By Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren (Rose-breasted Grosbeak) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Frequent feeders

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.

Song birds

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.

Nesting habits

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.

Baby birds

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.

Favorite bird

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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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

4 COMMENTS

  1. I live in Ashtabula county (Ohio) and 5 years ago we had one pair that came to our feeders and stayed all summer. They brought their young to the feeders after they fledged,feeding them from the sunflower feeders.
    This year I counted 6 males at one time and three females at another time. They do stay for the summer and are usually gone by the beginning of October. Most times they fly away when other birds confront them this year for the first time the males have become aggressive and will chase away the starlings and grackles.
    I love seeing them and hearing their cheery song.
    As a note the hummers returned the last Sunday in April and a very small male that comes back every year was peering in our front window telling me it was time to put up the feeders! They do this if the feeders are empited during the season.

  2. Hi! I just saw this great article! It popped up on my Google news feed since I have been looking up more info on the lovely Grosbeaks that come to our feeders as they migrate through Middle Tennessee. I live in Nashville. I tried to order some of the Doc’s bird friendly coffee and the process indicated free shipping. However when I got to the end, I was told to choose a shipping option each of which included a $10-$12 fee! I backed out. Sorry.
    Anyway, thanks for the info on grosbeaks. I look forward to hearing your radio program and more articles.

  3. My wife and I live in the Texas Hill Country 110 miles NW of San Antonio. Our particular area is typical Texas ranch country, brush, cactus and woodlands. Yesterday morning we had a very special visitor to our backyard; low and behold a Red Breasted Grosbeak! To say this beautiful male was off course is an understatement. We are blessed with an abundance both song and game birds of different varieties coming to our feeders, but the grosbeak was something special.

  4. I’m in SouthEastern Michigan and RBGs came to my feeders in May the last 2 years. I almost faint when they alight. They stay for about 3 days. I feed black oil sunflower seeds and safflower for them. This year I am adding striped sunflower seed to my 2 Grosbeak-appointed feeders. I cannot wait until May. Hope they stay longer this year. RBGs are my fave birds ever and I am older than dirt.

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