Recently, my frantically excited wife announced that she had spotted a bird that left her momentarily speechless. It was a male rose-breasted grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) and I couldn’t blame her. The elegant black-and-white dress of the male, flamboyantly accented with a triangular necklace of red, makes it a beautiful sight indeed.
It is currently thought that most of “our” bird species are actually tropical birds that head north long enough to breed and then return home as quickly as possible. This makes sense because while the tropics are reliably warm (making them a nice place to live), their reliability also makes them a difficult place to raise a family. Baby birds need a lot of food, and competition for that resource would limit the number of babies that could survive.
As a resident of the Northern Temperate Zone, you will be able to attest to the fact that temperatures can fluctuate dramatically between seasons. Most importantly, we have a long, cold winter that forces everything to grow quickly when warm weather finally arrives. This is why the birds come here. The springtime explosion of plant growth sets off another explosion of insects, and baby birds just love insects. But easy to understand and easy to accomplish do not always walk hand-in-hand.
Some of the birds that breed in our area travel more than 1,000 miles to get here. They have to fly the entire distance while also avoiding being killed by predators, cars or windows. Once they arrive, they have the additional challenge of competing with one another. If they arrive too late they may miss out on the good nesting sites, but if they arrive too early they can die of starvation or exposure.
Now as popular as rose-breasted grosbeaks are, their lives are still not too well understood by many people. In particular, there is a very common mistake that I am going to try to help out with. Many people who have mentioned rose-breasted grosbeaks to me have spoken of the mated pairs that come to their feeders. But if you see two black-and-white birds with red breasts, you have two males.
Rose-breasted grosbeaks are “sexually dimorphic,” which means that males and females differ in appearance. In fact, the females are so different from the males (brown and white feathers only) that they are often mistaken for another species altogether — not unlike the red-winged blackbirds I discussed at the beginning of May.
Setting up feeder
If you want to attract a pair of rose-breasted grosbeaks to your yard, you can start by putting out a platform feeder with plenty of sunflower seeds. They are particularly fond of black oil sunflower seeds and the shells from these seeds will not be too tough on your gardens. They are very shy birds, and are easily bullied by squirrels, so try to set up a feeder that will remain relatively quiet.
Rose-breasted grosbeaks are so shy that it is reflected in their scientific names. The word “Pheucticus” actually means “shy or retiring,” and “ludovicianus” refers to the state of Louisiana, where the bird was probably first seen by Europeans. The literal translation is probably something like, “the shy bird from Louisiana.”
The one thing I ask is this: If you own a cat, please be very cautious about putting out feeders. If you are going to attract these beautiful birds to your home for the joy of watching them up close, then you have to respect them and care for them enough to keep them from harm.