For the Birds Radio Program: Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Original Air Date: June 8, 1988

Laura talks about an extraordinarily beautiful and tuneful bird. (4:00) (This was recast for a later program–not sure of the date but I’m assuming it goes with the placeholder on May 27, 1994.)

Audio missing


(Recording of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak)

That’s the song of one of the prettiest of all finches, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak. People often say the Rose-breasted Grosbeak sings like a robin with a sore throat. There is an un- robinlike richness to a grosbeaks’ warble, but it doesn’t sound hoarse to me. The best way I know to separate the songs of robins and grosbeaks is that robins sound like they’re singing long sentences with words of three syllables.

(Recording of an American Robin)

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks sing long sentences, too, but they can’t be broken down into words as easily.

(Recording of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak)

Unlike most birds, female Rose-breasted Grosbeaks sing too. And Rose-breasted Grosbeaks also occasionally sing at night, but not as often as robins do.

Also unlike most birds, male grosbeaks help build the nest and help incubate the eggs. Both sexes are known to sing as they sit on the eggs or young, which seems somehow foolish but sweet. And females stay on the nest even when approached by predators. There are many stories of ornithologists and photographers who, in trying to get a glimpse of the eggs, literally had to pick the female up off the nest.

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks eat a variety of food–as much insect as plant. They eat all kinds of wild fruit, elm seeds, and tree blossoms, along with cucumber and potato beetles, cankerworms, and locusts. One of their common names is the “potato bug bird.” They feed their nestlings a variety of insect larvae. The varied diet explains why they don’t come to feeders as much as Evening Grosbeaks do. They are also much shyer than Evening Grosbeaks. There are two different explanations for their scientific name, Pheucticus÷–it either comes from the Greek word pheuticus for “shy and retiring,” or from the Greek word phycticos, for “painted with cosmetics.” Either way it seems appropriate.

Like many of the Northland’s most treasured summer birds, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks winter in the tropics–anywhere from central Mexico down to the northern parts of South America, and depend on the tropical rain forest for their survival. Most banded birds live for 4-6 years, and one lived more than 9 years in the wild. They belong to one species that seems particularly vulnerable to picture windows, and they are also killed in large numbers by cars as the males fly over roads in their nuptial display flights. I often see them flying over Jean Duluth Road in Morley Heights as I drive past–males seem to play an avian form of the high school macho game “chicken,” flying out right as cars go by to impress the females. Naturally they survive much longer in captivity–one bird lived almost 24 years in a cage, but would probably gladly have swapped those extra years for his freedom.

John James Audubon enjoyed this splendid bird. He wrote about a special encounter one night in 1834, while he was sleeping out in the Mohawk River Valley of New York, “The evening was calm and beautiful, the sky sparkled with stars. 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.”

(Recording of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak)

That was John James Audubon, this is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”