Other than Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, the one bird whose return in the spring is guaranteed to generate excitement is the Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Every spring, I get phone calls and emails from people wanting to share the thrill of seeing these vibrant birds in their back yards.
The spring arrival of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks is a temporary visit. Finding the arrangements, which can consist of well-stocked feeders and perhaps a convenient water source, the migrating birds may linger for several days. These birds nest at higher elevations, however, and are usually impatient to continue the journey to where they will spend the summer months tending to their young.
This year, my first Rose-breasted Grosbeak arrived at my home on Simerly Creek Road in Hampton around 3:30 p.m. on Friday, April 25. I saw a glimpse of black and white with a hint of red that lifted my spirits instantly. I had been hoping for about a week that migrating grosbeaks would visit as they often do in the spring. The lone male settled onto a small hanging feeder and began enjoying an offering of black-oil sunflower seeds. He made repeated trips throughout the afternoon and evening, allowing me to take several photos through a window.
Some of my posted photos drew enthusiastic comments from my Facebook friends. Dani Sue Thompson shared that the beautiful Rose-breasted Grosbeak is one of her favorite birds. Her mother, the late Donna Adams, was a huge fan of the related Blue Grosbeak, which is a less common visitor to Northeast Tennessee than the related Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Donna and I share many a grosbeak story over the years.
Byron Tucker, a friend from Atlanta, notified me on Facebook the day before the Rose-breasted Grosbeak arrived at my home that he was hosting them in Georgia. From a single bird to a flock of three males and three females, these visitors were a first for Byron. He was excited to host these colorful birds for several days at his feeders.
Single birds are occasionally the first to arrive, but Rose-breasted Grosbeaks do form flocks when migrating. Even if a scout shows up alone at your feeders, he will often soon be joined by other grosbeaks. My recent visit by a single male led to two and then three males visiting the feeders. Eventually a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak also made an appearance.
Plenty of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks pass through Northeast Tennessee, and a few even decide to make mountains like Unaka, Holston and Roan their home for the summer. However, these birds spread out widely across the eastern half of the North American continent, ranging from northeastern British Columbia to Quebec and Nova Scotia in Canada. They also range south from New Jersey to Georgia. The Rose-breasted Grosbeak also reaches Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas.
For the most part, however, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak is replaced in the western United States by the closely related Black-headed Grosbeak.
As fall approaches, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak migrates south to a winter range that spans central Mexico, Central America and northern South America. As they depart, many of these migrating birds will make autumn visits to again partake of offerings of sunflower seeds at backyard feeders. So, if you don’t get to see these showy birds in the spring, you get another chance in September and October.
The male Rose-breasted Grosbeak gives this species it name. Males are the epitome of the birds that make their home for part of the year in the American tropics. The contrasting black and white plumage is emphasized by a triangular slash of rosy-red color on the breast. Put all those elements together and the male Rose-breasted Grosbeak is not a bird that would be mistaken for any other.
The female grosbeak, however, doesn’t quite stand out in the same way. She is much less colorful than the male. With her brown and white plumage, she is often mistaken for a large sparrow or finch.
Both sexes have a massive bill, which they use to hull sunflower seeds at feeders or glean insects from leaves and branches. It’s the heavy, blunt bill for which the term “grosbeak” is derived. “Gros” is a German term for large or big, so grosbeak simply means a large-beaked bird. People who band birds to further the study of them will tell you that Rose-breasted Grosbeaks have a wicked bite and are capable of delivering quite a nip. In Northeast Tennessee, bird banders frequently encounter Rose-breasted Grosbeaks in their mist nets — and bear the scars to prove it.
With some birds, males play only a minor role in the nesting process. That’s not the case with the Rose-breasted Grosbeak male. The males help with nest-building chores and share responsibility with the female for incubating the eggs.
The female lays three to five eggs in a cup-shaped nest. It’s not easy to locate the nests since the birds usually place them in trees at least 20 feet above the ground. Within two weeks, the eggs have hatched and the parents are kept extremely busy finding enough food to satisfy the voracious nestlings. Well fed by both parents, the young grow quickly and usually are ready to leave the nest within 12 days. Often, when a first brood of young departs the nest, the male will care for the rowdy group of fledglings as the female starts a second nest to capitalize on the long days of summer.
Away from our feeders, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks feed on insects, seeds, fruit and even some leaf buds and flowers. I’ve seen these birds satisfying a sweet tooth — or should that be sweet beak? — by feeding on jewelweed flowers and apple blossoms. If sugar’s good for hummingbirds, I am sure it is a valuable energy source for Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, too.
The Rose-breasted Grosbeak is a cherished spring visitor that never fails to disappoint by bringing a hint of the tropics to the mountains of Northeast Tennessee. I’m hoping many readers are also enjoying their own opportunities for hosting this delightful songbird.
The bird walk at Tipton-Haynes Historic Site on Saturday, April 26, yielded a good range of birds, including American Robin, House Wren, Cardinal, Song Sparrow, Carolina Chickadee, American Goldfinch, Tufted Titmouse, Crow, Canada Goose, Chimney Swift, Brown Thrasher, Barn Swallow, Eastern Towhee, European Starling, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Chipping Sparrow, Mallard, Red-winged Blackbird, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture, Northern Flicker, Grackle, Gray Catbird, Blue Jay, Mourning Dove and Eastern Bluebird.
Attending the walk were Heather Jones, Charles Moore, David Thometz and myself. We enjoyed perfect spring weather and also admired the many wildflowers in the gardens and woodlands at the Johnson City historic site.
Members of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society will also hold a bird walk at 8 a.m. on Saturday, May 10, at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton. This walk is held in honor of International Migratory Bird Day and should provide participants with an excellent opportunity for seeing some fine birds.
I enjoy hearing from readers. Share a sighting, ask a question or make a comment by emailing me at email@example.com or posting to my Facebook page.