Picture walks: Rose-breasted grosbeaks coming soon

By Jeanne Church

When I first became a backyard birder more than 30 years ago, I could only identify a few of the more common birds like robins, cardinals, and blue jays. The first time a rose-breasted grosbeak landed on one of our feeders, I had no idea what it was, but it certainly caught my eye! This happened long before I had a decent camera, a cell phone, a computer, or an app that would help me to identify it. I had to remember what it looked like and pull out our Peterson Field Guide from the bookshelf to discover what it was.

Surprisingly, there was a picture of a male rose-breasted grosbeak right on the cover! Once I learned the name of the bird, and that it arrived in Michigan by late April to early May, it became a bit of a game each year for my husband and I to see how early we could find the first grosbeak. The arrival dates were then written in the back of Peterson’s guide for many, many years. Our earliest notation was April 25, 1995. Most of the time, though, we didn’t see them until after the first of May. For some birders, the arrival of the rose-breasted grosbeak marks the beginning of spring. In anticipation of their arrival, I have already stocked my platform feeder with sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, and raw, shelled peanuts.

When the rose-breasted grosbeaks are not at our feeders, I expect they’re out looking for other tasty treats, like beetles, ants, spiders, butterflies, and moths. They might also be feeding on a wide variety of fruits such as blackberries, raspberries, and juneberries.

Rose-breasted grosbeaks are stocky, medium-sized songbirds that are smaller than an American robin, but larger than a house finch. The male rose-breasted grosbeak has been described as one of North America’s most distinctive looking songbirds, and I have to agree. He is a study in contrasts with his jet-black head, back, and wings; a white belly and rump, and a rosy-red triangular breast patch. His bold feathers make him easy to identify.

In typical songbird fashion, the female rose-breasted grosbeak is quite drab by comparison, and much harder to identify. She is brown and white with a striped breast, a dark cheek patch, and a bold white stripe over her eye. Her plumage resembles that of a large, brown, streaky sparrow. As different as the male and female rose-breasted grosbeak are in terms of their feathers, both birds share one easily recognizable feature: a thick, conical bill.

Rose-breasted grosbeaks are known for their beautiful song. It has often been compared to the song of an American robin, only sweeter and more melodious; like a robin with opera lessons! Unlike many songbirds, both the male and female rose-breasted grosbeak are known to sing. They also have a very distinctive call. Both genders emit a single note that sounds very much like the squeak of a sneaker on a newly polished gym floor. They use this call to keep in contact with one another.

This charming little bird has two close relatives in Michigan; the evening grosbeak, and the pine grosbeak. They are similar in size and shape to their rose-breasted cousin, and share the same thick, conical bill. On rare occasions, there have also been blue grosbeaks spotted in Michigan! These birds look very much like an indigo bunting on steroids! One such visit occurred in July of 2014 along the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail and created quite a stir! The last time a blue grosbeak had been spotted in Kalamazoo County was in 1957! Blue grosbeaks are more commonly found farther south, but they are “trending north” according to John Brenneman, who was a research project coordinator at the Kalamazoo Nature Center at the time this blue grosbeak was sighted.

Rose-breasted grosbeaks have already arrived in Michigan! Fill up your platform feeders, your hoppers and trays with sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, and shelled peanuts. Hopefully, you’ll be in for a special treat!

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