For the Birds Radio Program: Pine Grosbeak

Original Air Date: Jan. 11, 1995

Today Laura Erickson talks about the Golden Retriever of the bird world. 3:45

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The Black-capped Chickadee may be the favorite winter bird for most Northlanders because of its enthusiastic and jolly nature, but the most congenial and pleasant of winter birds has to be the Pine Grosbeak. If the chickadee is a happy-go-lucky Springer Spaniel of a bird, the Pine Grosbeak is a Golden Retriever–oversized for a finch, with rich, soft plumage and a gentle, sweet nature. Injured Pine Grosbeaks are unusually docile for wild birds, looking at us with the kind of trusting eyes also found in goldens.

Pine Grosbeaks are hardy souls, and their pleasant, mellow whistles can be heard when the temperature is well below zero. As flocking birds often do, Pine Grosbeaks crave companionship, and when one gets separated from its flock, it can easily be drawn in to a human with imitations of its call. The very first Pine Grosbeak I ever saw came down close to me as I whistled, and then suddenly alighted on my finger.

In a beauty contest, the Pine Grosbeak would be a fine contender for both Miss Congeniality and Miss Universe, even without a bathing suit. (It’s also found in northern Asia and Europe, so it might be overqualified to be Miss America.) Adult males are an incredible, rich pink touched with an ethereal shade of gray. Males hatched this year are golden brown with a lovely russet tinge to the head and rump. Females are similar to young males, only more golden than russet.

From a distance, Pine Grosbeaks resemble robins, especially in flight. Their beak is both darker and smaller than the beak of most grosbeaks, probably because they eat both seeds and fruits. Their scientific name is Pinicola enucleator, “Pinicola” meaning that they inhabit pines. As a physiologist, I was concerned with the fate of the type specimen, because to “enucleate” means to remove the eyeballs, but the derivation of the Pine Grosbeaks specific name is less prosaic and gruesome–“enucleator” comes from the Latin “to shell out,” and refers to the grosbeak’s manner of husking seeds.

Pine Grosbeaks often come to country feeders in the north for sunflower seeds, but they are shyer and much less aggressive than Evening Grosbeaks despite being larger, so they retreat at the first sign of their feistier relatives. They’re also found in mountain ash and crab apple trees, and on roadsides picking up grit. Sometimes one or two join up with a flock of Bohemian Waxwings, and sometimes a robin joins up with a flock of Pine Grosbeaks. They’re fairly common in the northern forest in winter, but far less easy to find in cities and towns. Every now and then they appear in great numbers south of their normal range–I’ve seen them in southern Wisconsin and Illinois in such years–but most winters people have to come north to see them.

They live further south in the western mountains, where they can be found all the way down in California, Arizona, and New Mexico. Whether high in the mountains or down on the ground along the Gunflint Trail, these exquisite and friendly birds are as welcome and warm a sight as good old Shadow the Golden Retriever finally making his way home at the end of the movie Homeward Bound.