Home & Garden: Grand Valley’s variety of grosbeaks | PostIndependent.com

Home & Garden: Grand Valley’s variety of grosbeaks

Larry Collins
Free Press Home & Garden Columnist
Male Black Headed Grosbeak in a Tree
Getty Images/iStockphoto | iStockphoto

Q: I have a yellowish/orange bird eating at my seed feeder. Do I have an oriole?

A. Probably not.

Take another look; is it more yellowish? If so, I would guess you have a grosbeak. Besides the color, the reason for my conclusion is that orioles are not seed eaters. A grosbeak has a thick, pronounced beak and is somewhat short and stocky. An oriole, on the other hand, has a longer, narrower beak and body.

Depending on where you live, you could have either an evening grosbeak or a black-headed grosbeak. The male black-headed grosbeak has a black head (not too surprising) and has more of a burnt orange chest with white patches on its wings. The male evening grosbeak has yellow eyebrows, a more yellow chest, and black and white wings.

There is also a less commonly seen rose-breasted grosbeak. The rose-breasted has black on its head and half way down its back, with a white body with a red bib on its chest. A blue grosbeak and a pine grosbeak also exist, but are not generally seen in our valley.

This time of year in lower elevations (like Grand Junction), we primarily see black-headed grosbeaks; most evening grosbeaks move to higher elevations. Four or five years ago, there were more evening grosbeaks in this area.

The rose-breasted grosbeak lives here, too, but are less common and prefer to hang out in marshy areas amongst the cattails. You may also see them more frequently at bird feeders at higher elevations.

All varieties of grosbeaks are seed eaters, which is determined by the shape of their beaks. They prefer black oil sunflower seeds, however the size and strength of their beaks also enables them to eat striped sunflower seeds (which most other birds are not able to consume due to the large size and the hardness of its shell).

The black-headed and rose-breasted grosbeaks have unusual diets for birds with big seed-eating beaks. Throughout most of the year, more than half of their diet is made up of insects like large grasshoppers, crickets and other bugs with tough exoskeletons. They are beneficial to farmers, consuming many potato beetles and weed seeds.

Fun fact: Black-headed grosbeaks are one of only a few birds capable of eating toxic monarch butterflies. They discard the wings before eating the butterfly in an apparent attempt to reduce the amount of toxins they ingest. Both the black-headed grosbeaks and black-backed orioles are the two primary avian predators of the over-winter populations of monarch butterflies in Mexico. Combined, they are responsible for more than 60 percent of monarch mortality at many of the Mexican roosting sites.

Black-headed grosbeaks are also known to feed at oriole nectar feeders.

Rose-breasted and black-headed grosbeak males share equally with females in incubating eggs and feeding young. The male rose-breasted grosbeak is known to even sing while sitting on the nest.

Rose-breasted grosbeaks are known for singing on moonlit nights, sometimes all night, but never very loudly. Their nests are commonly parasitized by the brown-headed cowbird, possibly due to the singing as they construct the nest thus giving away the nest’s location.

Evening grosbeaks like to eat wild cherries, but unlike other birds, they only eat the pits. They manipulate cherries in their beak to remove the outer skin and flesh. The remaining slippery seeds are held firmly with special pads on the “gross beak” and are simply cracked open and then swallowed.

So favored are cherry pits that evening grosbeaks sometimes seek out the pits voided by American robins. They can break open seeds that require up to 125 pounds of pressure to crush.

Evening Grosbeaks additionally seem to delight in snipping off the twigs of sugar maple trees and sipping the sweet sap. They are often attracted to salt and other mineral sources, so you may see them on the ground eating small rocks.

Local bird expert and GJ Free Press columnist Larry Collins owns Wild Birds Unlimited, 2454 Hwy. 6&50, which caters to folks who want the best backyard bird-feeding experience possible. Email your bird-feeding and birding questions to lcollins1@bresnan.net.

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