Excerpted from a recent article by our favorite Bryson City-based local naturalist and philosopher, George Ellison.
<<< “Here a rose-breasted grosbeak. At first I thought it a tanager, but soon I perceived it more clear and instrumental…It is not at all shy, and our richest singer…the strain perfectly clear and sweet…rising and swelling to the end, with various modulations.” – Henry David Thoreau, “Journals”.
…Those birds that migrate hundreds of miles across the Gulf of Mexico from Central and South America to next in the United states and Canada are know as neotrop0ical migrants or trans-gulf migrants. One of these is the rose-breasted grosbeak. No other bird in our avifauna is more striking in appearance, distinctive in its singing or downright feisty to deal with.
Adult males in breeding plumage have shiny black heads and throats and boldly patterned black and white wings, while its underparts are white. But what’ll catch your eye is the triangular carmine-red breast. Farmers used to call the bird “throat-cut” because of this vivid and somewhat irregular marking.
I like the way Roger Tory Peterson describes the rose-breasted’s voice: “Song, rising and falling passages; resembles robin’s song, but mellower, given with more feeling (as if a robin has taken voice lessons.”)
For the most part, rose-breasted grosbeaks breed up north. But somehow or other they have also discovered there’s suitable northern habitat in the higher elevations of the southern mountains, which saves a lot of flying time and energy. When they’re migrating north in early spring, you’ll frequently spot them at bird feeders in the lower elevations. But by May, they’ll be established at nesting sites between 3,200 and 5,000 feet. Should you find yourself in Highlands, find the Nature Center and go around back to the little amphitheater. Sit down. Focus your binoculars and wait for the first RBG to commence singing.
There’s no mistaking the male, and while his mate is less grandly marked – having brown upper parts with a striped crown and streaky underparts – she too has the same bustling vitality and mannerisms. There’s a sturdy dignity and forcefulness about this species. They always seem to be going about their business in a workmanlike, cheerful manner.
But don’t be beguiled – they also have vile tempers when disrupted. Elizabeth & I used too spend a week or two each April assisting with the migrant bird study being conducted by grant bird study being conducted by the national park service (with Nat Geo funding) on East Ship Island about 10 miles off the Mississippi coast from Biloxi. We helped net, weigh, measure, band and release maybe 300-400 birds each spring, mostly warblers.
Netted birds are generally docile, even when in hand. Rose-breasted grosbeaks become positively livid from the moment they hit the net until well after they’re set free. They take the whole business personally, fighting back with every weapon at their disposal. And the bird is well-armed. The powerfully stout beak – normally utilized to break open seeds – clamps down on a careless worker’s finger with he force of a pair of vise-grip pliers, bring blood and yelps of pain. You have to pry or tear them loose. After just one encounter with an angry RBG, you learn to handle this species with circumspection.
Checking the nets after Elizabeth had been along before me, I would often find them bare except for a screaming red-breasted. That we her way of dealing with the grosbeak problem. Leave it to me.
SOURCE: George Ellison for the Asheville Citizen-Times. IMAGE: National Audubon Society