Northland Nature: Grosbeaks are strong on song, weak on nest building
As we move through the second half of May, the changes happen radically before us each day. The greening of the woods is quickening, but not as fast as the flowering spring ephemerals below. Practically growing before our eyes, fiddleheads unroll...
As we move through the second half of May, the changes happen radically before us each day. The greening of the woods is quickening, but not as fast as the flowering spring ephemerals below. Practically growing before our eyes, fiddleheads unroll on the forest floor as well.
The migration reaches a hectic pace now too. Each day when we step outside, we see Northland birds that were not here yesterday. The diversity is great now. Warblers of many kinds pass through. Some of the 26 species in our region keep going north. Others nest here. But at this time of May, all these small flitting birds arrive.
They are joined by vireos, thrushes, flycatchers, hummingbirds, orioles and sparrows. Some return to the Northland silently and may be back for a while before we take note of their presence. Others sing almost as soon as they reappear.
One of these obvious returnees is the rose-breasted grosbeak. In a definite show of sexual dimorphism, the males and females almost look like a different species.
Males carry a large pinkish-rose heart-shaped bib along with their dark head and white belly. Meanwhile, the female is brown streaked and appearing much like that of a sparrow.
Both are about eight inches long and have a large thick beak (grosbeak means: big beak); more so than seen on the smaller sparrows.
These thick powerful beaks are used for breaking seeds. Feeding on sunflower seeds, they readily come to bird feeders that are still stocked in spring.
Males return from the winter before females. Besides showing up in yards and feeders, they sing loudly from high in the leafing trees. Songs have been compared to that of robins, but not as long.
They also frequently give a sharp "eek" call. Soon she joins him and unlike most songbirds, both sing loud and often. Clearly, they proclaim ownership of this part of the woods, park or yard as their home.
During these days of May, we may see several grosbeaks together as they settle into territories in the neighborhood. Once mating and nesting begins, they separate, and we won't see groups.
Once their territories have been established, they build a loose nest of sticks in shrubs or low trees, often in our yards. It is interesting to note that this pretty bird with a loud and beautiful song makes a poorly constructed nest. They have been known to fall apart before the young have fledged in the summer.
Now, in late May, their melodious proclamations and handsome plumage blends in with the other avian songsters that are back from wintering in the south.
Soon the arboreal canopy will be complete and seeing these birds will be difficult, but now the colorful rose-breasted grosbeaks invite us out for a closer look.
Larry Weber is author of the "Backyard Almanac" and "Butterflies of the Northwoods." He lives in Carlton County and teaches natural science at Duluth's Marshall School.