The rose-breasted grosbeak has arrived for the summer.


By Benjamin P. Burtt


Mr. Burtt: We have a bird that we have never seen before. It is about the size of a robin, has a black head, dark back, white belly and a bright red V shaped bib. The beak is yellow. What is it? From D.E., ( in an E-mail message.)

Dear D. E.: The bird is a male rose-breasted grosbeak. Other readers have asked about the bird and ask, “is it rare in these parts.”

When this beautiful bird suddenly appears in early May it catches our attention. Every year I receive questions from people who have not seen one before and are thrilled to see such an attractive bird. During October through April it has been in the West Indies, Mexico and South America.

I see it first at my feeder where it comes regularly for sunflower seeds. Later on I do not see it very much for it is out of sight foraging in the tree tops.

( Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Co.)

CAPTION: The male rose-breasted grosbeak on the right is “Black and white with a large triangle of rose red on the breast and a thick pale bill”. The female is “Streaked, like a large sparrow or female purple finch, recognized by large ‘grosbeak bill’, broad white wing bars, striped crown and broad, white eyebrow stripe.” Note the flashes of white when the male is flying. The painting and the description are from Peterson’s “Field Guide to The Birds of Eastern and Central North America”

It sings through the spring and summer. Peterson describes its song as “rising and falling passages; resembles American Robin’s song but given with more feeling (as if the robin has taken voice lessons)”.

Early writers were even more poetic in describing this bird song. In T. Gilbert Pearsons book, Birds of America, in 1917 he said, “Some birds have common voices, but the Rose Breast(one of its early names) has a rich and mellow voice that rings out with abundant vitality in the bush lot at the edge of the forest or across the bushy swamp.”

The beauty of the bird was its undoing in the late 1800s when F. Beal wrote “On account of its attractive plumage, the birds are highly prized for ladies hats, and consequently have been shot in season and out, till the wonder is not that there are so few, but that any remain at all.”

A common name given by early farmers was “the Potato Bug Bird”. It was welcomed for its habit of picking these pests from their crop.

Its nest is a loose flat structure mainly constructed of small twigs with a few leaves and plant stems. It loose construction allows you to see the sky through the nest from below. They nest twice each year. Often the female will be incubating the second clutch of eggs while the male cares for the first fledglings.

They are readily attracted to a bird bath so keep yours filled for the rest of the summer. The rose-breasted grosbeak will stay until the end of September.