For the Birds Radio Program: Black-headed Grosbeak!

Original Air Date: Jan. 11, 2010

Black-headed Grosbeaks do not belong in Duluth, but one showed up at the feeder of Pat Thomas and turned out to be as cooperative as it was beautiful.

Duration: 4′31″


Black-headed Grosbeak

A really cool rare bird turned up in Duluth the day before Duluth’s Christmas Bird Count. A Black-headed Grosbeak, a Western species closely related to our own Rose-breasted Grosbeak, turned up in Pat Thomas’s yard. Pat is extremely knowledgeable and caring about birds, but is not a bird chaser. She called the Christmas Bird Count compiler, Jim Lind, who got the word out to birders in general and specifically to the team that covers Pat’s luscious backyard. That would have been me while I was in Duluth—Pat’s yard has always been my first stop on the Christmas Bird Count. This year I was in Ithaca, but Janet Riegle led our group there first thing, and they found the bird quickly. I of course got emails about the bird every day while I was in Ithaca, and was jealous as all get-out, but had a sad feeling that by the time I got home, it would have vanished. But nope—even though weather and general busy-ness kept me from Pat’s until December 27, when I finally got there, the bird flew right in and posed for photos. I stopped by on New Year’s Eve, too, and saw it there again. It didn’t cooperate on either New Year’s Day or on January 2, when I had to head back to Ithaca, so I am missing it for this year’s list, but it was lovely seeing it at all so I’m not complaining. The bird remained there until January 6.

Pat told me that the bird came frequently to eat under the pine right outside her kitchen window, along with 3 or 4 juncos and a few chickadees. They ate in a small group together which made Pat feel good that he had some ‘friends’—he ate peanuts, black-oil sunflower, and white millet. On the coldest days he’d sit in the cedar and face the sun, all fluffed up. When he was eating on the ground on those cold days, he’d tuck in one foot as he ate and managed to get around on one foot.

Pat last saw the bird at about 4 pm on January 6 when she went out to clean off and fill the tree stump feeders. In less than one minute there he was – back in one of the feeders. He’d apparently been waiting for Pat. He ate his fill, and probably moved on that night—Black-headed Grosbeaks are nocturnal migrants. Although his navigation system was clearly a bit screwed up, with luck he headed toward balmier temperatures.

Black-headed Grosbeaks are closely related to Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. Both species are unusual in that not only do both sexes sing, but also both males and females often sing while sitting in the nest! Based on what we know from research, males primarily sing to maintain the pair bond, for territorial defense, and to maintain the family group. Females usually sing a simple song, quite different from the male’s, to maintain the pair bond and family group. But interestingly, females can sing a perfectly good male song, which they do from the nest when their mate hasn’t been paying enough attention to home and hearth. Dr. Geoff Hill, the authority for Black-headed Grosbeak vocalizations, says that she sings the male song to deceive her mate into thinking there’s another male on his territory to force him to be more attentive near the nest. The more deeply we study birds, the more we learn how complex and fascinating they really are. We humans are far from the only intelligent life to be found on this planet, or the only ones worthy of being featured on soap operas.