Appearing as overgrown finches, grosbeaks make up an interesting group of birds that are among my favorites.
Two such grosbeaks, pine and evening grosbeaks, belong to the family Frigillidae, while the other five grosbeaks in North America are members of the family Cardinalidae, which is the same family that northern cardinals belong to.
The bills of grosbeaks tell us much about the types of foods these birds prefer. All grosbeaks are primarily seed-eaters and their strong, oversized conical-shaped bills are specially designed to crack seeds. Still, grosbeaks will also feed on buds, fruits, small nuts and insects.
Often referred to as irruptive species of wild birds -- otherwise known as those species occurring mostly north of the border but migrate southerly when food is scarce -- pine grosbeaks are “irregularly common” here in Minnesota.
Just as other irruptive species of birds, like pine siskins, purple finches and common redpolls do, pine grosbeaks -- as well as evening grosbeaks -- come and go depending on the severity of the winters and the food supply further north.
And when we do observe pine or evening grosbeaks, sometimes both species, they typically show up in large flocks. Their calls are constant and sparrow-like, so it isn’t hard to identify their presence even before you actually see them.
Pine grosbeaks are stocky birds about the size of an American robin. Males are mostly rosy red in color with other parts that are grayish, pinkish and black.
White wing bars are diagnostic traits that you can also use for identification. And unlike the bills of other grosbeaks, the beaks of pine grosbeaks are shorter and are strongly curved -- almost raptor-like in shape.
As mentioned, pine grosbeaks are irruptive, nomadic species of birds. They’re also highly social and musical, too. Pine grosbeaks will often spend considerable time at feeding stations once arriving. Thus, plenty of viewing time is the reward for those lucky enough to attract pine grosbeaks.
In just the past couple of weeks I’ve noticed more and more pine grosbeaks at my feeders. At last count only a few short days ago, I counted over 20.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have lived in areas where pine grosbeaks have made appearances. Over twenty years ago when I managed an Audubon environmental learning center near Warren, Minn., a large flock of pine grosbeaks kept me company the entire winter of 2000.
It was a fairly mild winter and the birds were often at my feeders. I have also observed large flocks feeding on cedar berries ,or perched in the canopies of cottonwoods, singing. It’s always a pleasure to hear singing birds in the wintertime.
We probably won’t ever observe nesting pine grosbeaks here in northern Minnesota, but we can consider ourselves lucky to see them at other times of the year, namely in the winter when food is in short supply farther north where they spend most of their lives.
Pine grosbeaks do occur year-round, however, in some parts of the Lower 48, such as within high elevations of the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada. Found also in Eurasia, pine grosbeaks’ primary range extends throughout coniferous forests of Canada and Alaska.
Observing pine grosbeaks congregating at our backyard feeding stations is always a treat to both our eyes and ears. Both sexes sing, and sing beautiful warbler-like songs. Tending to be docile and slow moving, never very quick to scare away, pine grosbeaks are far from skittish.
Once present, these birds are likely to stick around for a while whenever a reliable food source is located. An interesting fact about pine grosbeaks is that depending upon what part of the continent a population occupies, one will observe notable differences amongst the species. Differences in their sizes and the intensity of their red plumage differs across the large expanse of their range.
By now I hope that most of you have seen a pine grosbeak or two this winter. If not, perhaps they’re on their way, and you, too, will soon be marveling at one of Nature’s many avian wonders as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.