John James Audubon began his account of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak with these unusually poetic words describing his night encounter:
year, in the month of August, I was trudging along the shores of the
Mohawk river, when night overtook me. Being little acquainted with that
part of the country, I resolved to camp where I was; the evening was
calm and beautiful, the sky sparkled with stars, which were reflected by
the smooth waters, and the deep shade of the rocks and trees of the
opposite shore fell on the bosom of the stream, while gently from afar
came on the ear the muttering sound of the cataract. My little fire was
soon lighted under a rock, and, spreading out my scanty stock of
provisions, I reclined on my grassy couch. As I looked around on the
fading features of the beautiful landscape, my heart turned towards my
distant home, where my friends were doubtless wishing me, as I wished
them, a happy night and peaceful slumbers. Then were heard the barkings
of the watch-dog, and I tapped my faithful companion to prevent his
answering them. The thoughts of my worldly mission then came over my
mind, and having thanked the Creator of all for his never-failing mercy,
I closed my eyes, and was passing away into the world of dreaming
existence, when suddenly there burst on my soul the serenade of the
Rose-breasted bird, so rich, so mellow, so loud in the stillness of the
night, that sleep fled from my eyelids. Never did I enjoy music more: it
thrilled through my heart, and surrounded me with an atmosphere of
bliss. One might easily have imagined that even the Owl, charmed by such
delightful music, remained reverently silent. Long after the sounds
ceased did I enjoy them, and when all had again become still, I
stretched out my wearied limbs, and gave myself up to the luxury of
repose. In the morning I awoke vigorous as ever, and prepared to
continue my journey.” (Birds of America, octavo edition, 1871.)
was enamored with the beauty of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak - both its
song and its plumage. I can hardly disagreed. Of the two dozen or so
species which regularly visit my feeders during the summer, the two
summer grosbeaks, Rose-breasted (Cardinal family) and Evening (Finch
family), are the ones which arrest my attention every time they appear.
plumage of both is stunning, though very different. But if you add the
respective songs into the mix, then I have to tip the balance in favor
of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak. The Evening Grosbeak hardly has a song
worthy of the term. The Rose-breasted, by contrast, sings like a robin
who has taken voice lessons. When you hear a robin singing with fewer
pauses and with particularly clear, liquid phrases, check the tree tops
for the Rose-breasted Grosbeak.
male Rose-breasted Grosbeak is a handsome specimen. On his wings, back,
and tail he presents a contrast of black and white. When I startle
birds from my feeders with my sudden appearance, and see only a bold
black and white pattern disappearing into the trees, I know that I have
just scared him away.
But the breast is what catches
the breathe. Beneath the dark, black hood covering the head, his breast
is rose-red - a rose-red that often evokes the poetic, and even the
tragic. The lower tip of the triangular rose-red often runs down toward
the white belly, leading some to liken him to a jilted lover whose heart
has been broken. His heart has been pierced by a cruel arrow, and he
bleeds out his love.
From a harsher and more violent era, his folk name has sometimes been Throat-cut.
prefer to imagine him a groom dressed for his wedding - tuxedo clad
with a brilliant cummerbund to balance formality with gaiety.
such imaginings are, of course, nonsense, although the nonsense
prevails in the scientific name. The Rose-breasted Grosbeak is
Pheucticus ludovicianus. Pheucticus, from the Greek, means “painted with
cosmetics,” suggesting that his breast has been rouged; ludovicianus
means “of Louisiana,” the area where the first specimen came from. The
Rose-breasted shares its Genus with the western Black-headed Grosbeak.
contrast to the male, the female Rose-breasted is a plain Jane. She
looks like a big sparrow, or an oversized female Purple Finch.
when a male is brilliantly attired and the female is plain, the male
spends most of his time singing, continuing to boast his virtues and
defend his territory. Domestic duties, particularly incubation, are left
to the inconspicuous female. He may perhaps join in the feeding after
the eggs hatch, but not necessarily.
Rose-breasted Grosbeak is unusual. He provides some help in building a
flimsy nest and then shares in the incubation. When sitting on the
nest, he continues to sing. Protection of a nest typically depends upon
keeping its location as secret as possible from predators; singing on
the nest seems counterintuitive. Edward Forbush watched a male sing
while on the nest: “When a hawk flew overhead he continued to sing, but
so reduced the volume of the song that it seemed to come from far away,
raising his voice again when the hawk had passed on. Singing on the nest
and ventriloquizing are common habits of the male.”
means big beak, an adaptation designed to open large seeds. Watch the
grosbeaks, finches, cardinals and other large beaked birds as they feed
on your sunflower seeds. Adeptly they crack open the hard shell, extract
the nutritious meat and drop the casings. Chickadees, titmice, and even
Blue Jays, by contrast, take the sunflower seed to a branch, hold it
between the feed, and hammer it open with their bills.
the adept use of this “big beak” adaptation apparently has to be
learned. Bent, in his life history of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak,
reports this observation of the male with his adult sized offspring:
“The father then started to show it how to break open sunflower seeds.
Perching beside his offspring on a branch, he cracked a seed, broke the
kernel into pieces, and fed it to the young bird. He then gave it a
whole kernel. Next, he pretended to give the fledgling an uncracked
whole seed, but held on to it and in due time cracked the seed and fed
the young bird. [After a week of this], irritability on the part of the
parent, which had been increasing, resulted in his jamming food into the
mouth of the young bird, pecking its bill, and driving it away.”
natural habitat of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak is second-growth
woodlands, the borders of swamp and streams, along wood edges, and in
neglected pastures. In more recent years it has also adapted to human
habitation and is not unusual in towns, villages, and suburbs where
there is enough suitable trees and bushes for its nesting.
so many other birds, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak is not really “one of
ours.” It is a tropical species. It arrives in our neighborhood in May.
By mid-October, it will be back home in Central America. But during
these summer months, it is a welcome resident, delighting the eye and
the ear. The Rose-breasted Grosbeak is one of those birds which defines -