For the Birds Radio Program: Pine Grosbeak
Laura talks about a beautiful and friendly winter bird. (Recast from original from December 14, 1989.)
One of the most welcome sights on a frigid day in the Northland, perhaps even more beautiful and cheery than a Blue Jay, is a Pine Grosbeak. And the nicest thing about the largest finch of all is that you hardly ever see just one–they move about in flocks of as many as a hundred.
Pine grosbeaks are robin size birds. Despite their name, their black beak is not as large and conspicuous as an Evening Grosbeak’s–many people don’t even recognize them as grosbeaks. Adult males are bright pinkish red, the shade varying from rose to poppy. They look like oversized White-winged Crossbills. Females are soft gray, with a russet olive head and rump. Immature males have a uniquely colored head and rump–sort of a rusty maroon color. All of them have conspicuous white wingbars.
If Pine Grosbeaks are a visual treat, their friendliness makes them even more welcome. They whistle sweetly from a treetop, and if you answer them, they fly right down for a chat. I can’t think of anything nicer than a conversation with a Pine Grosbeak on a frigid day to chase the winter blues away. In the northern coniferous forests where they come from, they have no human-sized enemies, so they’re surprisingly tame. The first one I ever saw, in Madison Wisconsin, whistled back and forth with me for ten or fifteen minutes, drawing closer and closer until she actually allowed me to stroke her on the back. Her feathers were soft and warm. It was on one of those magic days of a cold front following a snowstorm–the soft powdery new snow sparkled against the crisp blue sky, and as she hopped along the branches, snow sprinkled to the ground like fairy dust. When I touched her, she seemed as moved by the contact as I–she cocked her head in wonder at me, looking straight at my eyes, and then she whistled.
Whenever people talk about the economic value of birds, I think of her.
If Pine Grosbeaks are friendly to people, they’re very timid around other birds, especially considering their size. Evening Grosbeaks always seem to lord it over them, and it’s a rare feeder that holds both species simultaneously. Your best chance of attracting them is to with their natural food–box elder, birch, and alder seeds, mountain ash berries, crabapples, even ragweed. If you manage to lure them in with natural food, their more likely to discover your feeder–sunflower seed is one of their favorite foods. Pine Grosbeaks have pouches in their throats for storing extra seeds, and so they can often carry away quite a bit of food before the other birds scare them off.
Pine Grosbeaks are also fond of road salt, which often proves to be a fata attraction. The oldest Pine Grosbeak on record, one banded in Morris, Connecticut, was found dead on a roadside when 8 years, 9 months old.
People in the Soviet Union may talk different from people in the United States, but I’ll bet Russians whistle to their Pine Grosbeaks the same as we Northlanders do. Pine Grosbeaks are sweet-tempered, gentle, and pretty to boot