Connie Jackson sent me a note on my blog, “Our Fine Feathered Friends,” about the excitement caused by her first-ever sighting this spring of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks.
“Thank you. Thank you. I’m an amateur bird watcher for the first time this year,” Connie wrote. “My feeders are drawing many birds to my delight. Today, for the first time, I saw both a male and female grosbeak. It took me two hours on-line to come across your article and picture to find out what they were. They are beautiful. I have taken many pictures.”
Danny Baker, who lives in northwest Tennessee in Clarksville, also wrote to me about visiting Rose-breasted Grosbeaks.
“I have had several grosbeaks at my feeders for three weeks now,” Danny wrote. “I was just wondering why the change from normal? They are very pretty and have a wonderful song, and everyday I return from work hoping they will still be here.”
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 suitable 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.
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.
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.
It’s the adult male with his vibrant black and white feathers and the large rosy-red splash of color across the breast that gives this bird its common name. Females are brown, streaked birds that are larger than but easily confused with some of our sparrows.