On a bright, cold January morning, I was trying to photograph a snowy owl along the edge of a rural road just north of Duluth. As I stood beneath some hawthorn trees, I heard soft birdsongs overhead. I turned to see what so livened the silent winter woods and, in doing so, noted blackish berries littering the snow. As I glanced up, a bright red bird returned my stare, its beak festooned with berry goo. A glorious male pine grosbeak.
Few songbirds give voice in winter. In the north where I live, bird vocalization is pretty much limited to crows and ravens. Hearing the lilting conversations of these large feeding finches—a sound so slight that even a few yards farther away I would not have heard it—filled me with delight. The owl, I knew, would hang around. It had for weeks. But grosbeaks in winter? They seem always to be on the move. I turned my lens instead toward these garrulous birds.
Because we are near the arctic and boreal regions of North America, Minnesota hosts winter avian visitors that rarely descend farther south than our state. Among them are two species of grosbeaks. These medium-size songbirds have notably chunky beaks, which earned grosbeaks their name—in French, gros means large. Come winter, resident evening grosbeaks are joined by others from Canada. Pine grosbeaks filter south from Canada to dine on berry trees and seeds of ash.
Besides winter migrants and rare visits of the black-headed grosbeak (a western bird), Minnesota has three breeding species of grosbeaks—the evening grosbeak, the rose-breasted grosbeak, and the blue grosbeak. With their similar names and veritable musical chairs of occupancy, one might think that all grosbeaks are closely related. Nope. They are in fact distantly related. On the bird family tree, evening and pine grosbeaks are finches. Rose-breasted and blue grosbeaks belong to the cardinal family. All are in different genera, the rank under family in bird taxonomy.
With their soft, sweet songs, these friendly finches gather in large winter flocks to feed in fruit trees or to feast on seeds in ash trees. They fly south to Minnesota virtually every winter. Poor seed crops in Canada mean more birds traveling to Minnesota. In years of such irruptions, pine grosbeaks can be quite numerous in the northern third of the state.
An adult male is red on head, back, chest, and rump. The female has a rusty orange or olive-green head and rump, and gray breast and back. Juvenile males are colored like females. The second-year male retains the gray breast but sports red head and rump and flecks of red on its back. Both males and females have dark brown tail and wings with two white wing bars.
Winter flocks often are segregated by sex. You might stumble upon 30 pine grosbeaks feeding in a fruit tree, but not spot a single red adult male among the females and juveniles. The reverse situation also occurs, although in my experience less frequently.
Though pine grosbeaks have been spotted just about everywhere in Minnesota at one time or another, the most consistent viewing is from late December through March north of a line from Duluth to Bemidji. While often found feeding on crabapples or the hardened fruit of the hawthorn, they are really more interested in the seeds inside the fruit. Once you've found pine grosbeaks feeding on fruit trees, chances are you'll be able to view them on multiple days, since they often remain in the area until the food source is stripped clean.
Pine grosbeaks in North America range from coniferous forests in Alaska, down through much of the Rocky Mountains, and across the taiga forests of Canada east to Newfoundland. So remote is their nesting range, remarkably little is known about pine grosbeaks. Females build sturdy nests lined with moss, lichens, and a few feathers. They prefer to nest in spruce trees. Minnesota has no reports of this species breeding here.
According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, pine grosbeaks may be in decline, especially in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island.
As a young boy, I often thought I was seeing giant goldfinches rooting around in the fire pit at our family's favorite national forest campgrounds on the Gunflint Trail. Later I learned they were evening grosbeaks. My dad said the birds were gritting—that is, swallowing grit to aid digestion—but it is also possible they gained nutrients from the ashes. Years later, as a ranger in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, I saw them do the same thing on several occasions.
To see this species in summer, go to the far northeast or to north-central Minnesota. We are at the southern edge of the range of Coccothraustes vespertinus, largely a species of coniferous forests in Canada and the American Rockies. In the April 1942 Conservation Volunteer, renowned ornithologist Thomas Sadler Roberts listed the evening grosbeak as only a probable nester in the northeastern "evergreen region." Thanks to breeding bird surveys, we now know that evening grosbeaks do indeed nest in at least three northern counties and perhaps as many as 10.
The evening grosbeak is one North American species whose numbers and range actually increased after European settlement. Until the mid-1800s, evening grosbeaks were considered rare east of the Mississippi River. Beginning in 1855, the species' population expanded rapidly eastward across the northern United States and southern Canada to the Atlantic. Some scientists believe the expansion may have been fueled by plantings of ornamental box elders, which provide winter food, and by outbreaks of forest insects, which nourish the birds during breeding season.
In winter, resident evening grosbeaks, joined by flocks from farther north, often descended in gregarious groups to devour sunflower seeds. In the Nov.–Dec. 1982 Volunteer, Carrol Henderson called this species one of "the most common native songbirds at Minnesota feeders in winter." Henderson, Department of Natural Resources nongame wildlife supervisor, confirms he would not say that today. Long-term studies like the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count have shown remarkable declines of this species' population and range in recent decades. Even the community of Isabella, in the heart of the state's coniferous forests, has reported zero evening grosbeaks during several recent Christmas counts.
Surveys by the Natural Resources Research Institute indicate that breeding pairs in Minnesota have declined by just over 8 percent since surveys began in 1995. This finding is consistent with declines across the rest of the continent. Suspected causes include a natural adjustment back to their "pre-boom" status, climate change, and habitat loss. If climate change and habitat loss are to blame, says DNR private lands habitat coordinator Jodie Provost, it will take a coordinated effort across borders and among landowners to provide the healthy forests the birds need as they adapt to a warming world.
Let's face it: Our winters can be long and drab. The snow melts, but then weeks of in-between weather mean leafless, dormant forests, largely absent of bird song and color.
Ah, but then rose-breasted grosbeaks arrive from their winter homes in Central and South America. While you may see Pheucticus ludovicianus before you hear it, that's usually not the case. Their preference for deciduous forest and thickets often keeps them unseen, especially females with their streaky brown plumage. You might guess that spotting the black-and-white male with bright rose-pink breast would be easy. Guess again. This bird often perches as high in a tree as branches allow.
But the song? That you've likely heard, even if you didn't know it. Described sometimes as "like a robin that's had voice lessons," the rose-breasted grosbeak sings sweetly without a hint of discordance. Both the male and the female sing, often repeating their melodious tunes three or four times. One word captures it all—lovely.
This species arrives with the warblers, as early as late April or as late as mid-May, depending on where you are in the state. In pairs or individually, rose-breasted grosbeaks visit bird feeders, especially the platform type. They relish sunflower seeds. In the wild, they use their powerful beaks to crush seeds, fruits, and insects. Potato farmers appreciate their fondness for the hard-shelled potato beetle.
Rose-breasted grosbeaks have been seen in every county in our state, but despite that, they can hardly be considered common, since they are not numerous in any single location. Minnesota is about the center of their breeding range, which extends northwest through the parkland forests of Canada, south to northern Missouri, and east to the Atlantic. They will nest in shrubs, deciduous trees, and even conifers, and they are fairly tolerant of habitat disturbance by humans. Their nests are so flimsy that the eggs are visible from below. Both sexes take turns incubating.
For the past 20 years, the Natural Resources Research Institute has conducted annual breeding bird surveys of national forests in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Surveys for rose-breasted grosbeaks show virtually no population changes. That stability contrasts with a 32 percent population decline across the continent since 1966. The species' status in Minnesota is good news for those who hope to hear this bright singer.
Not long after the forest-dwelling rose-breasted grosbeak arrives in spring, its open-country relative makes its appearance. The blue grosbeak (Passerina caerulea) is not common in Minnesota, but its numbers seem to be increasing. Preferring shrubby, open habitat, this species had, until recently, been limited to the far southwestern part of our state. A popular place to find blue grosbeaks has long been Blue Mounds State Park.
According to Bob Dunlap of the DNR Minnesota Biological Survey, the species has increased its range in the past decade. "We're now getting reports of blue grosbeaks as far north as Appleton, east to Mankato, and as near to the Twin Cities as LeSueur and Dakota counties," he says. The most likely reason, says Dunlap, is a warming climate. The related northern cardinal, for example, has expanded north even beyond Duluth in recent years.
Nationally, the blue grosbeak nests mostly south of Minnesota in a broad swath from coast to coast. It rarely is found in great numbers in any location. In winter, it retreats to Central America and the Caribbean. According to the Minnesota Ornithologists' Union, it is the last migrant to return to Minnesota in the spring.
Similar in color to the indigo bunting, the male blue grosbeak has rufous wing bars, which the smaller indigo lacks. The male blue grosbeak has a small, black mask near his massive black and silver beak. Females are cinnamon in color. Both sexes have long, rounded tails, which they twitch sideways. You may hear the song before you spot this bird, despite its bright blue. Like the rose-breasted, the male blue sings loudly from atop tall perches, though his song is not quite as melodious.
Blue grosbeaks prefer to nest in dense shrubbery or tangled vines near open areas. Power-line rights of way, river corridors, and fencerows are choice locations. They avoid human habitation and almost never appear at feeders. To see a blue grosbeak, you'll have to make an effort. Each season in Minnesota offers an opportunity to watch for resident or visiting songsters known as grosbeaks.