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North Words - It's a pleasure to, once again, hear the songs of grosbeaks

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For most of this early winter I've been content at observing the year 'round resident blue jays, white-breasted nuthatches, and black-capped chickadees, in addition to the woodpecker trio -- downy, hairy, and pileated woodpeckers -- frequent my backyard birdfeeders. No matter what the conditions outside are, I can always count on seeing these six species of birds throughout the year.

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Lately, however, and in just the last week or two, other species have begun filtering in: common red polls, American goldfinches, brown creepers, and an occasional red-breasted nuthatch and red-bellied woodpecker, too. But where are the grosbeaks? I wondered aloud a week before Christmas. A couple of years have already passed since I last saw an evening grosbeak visiting my feeders, but I normally see a few pine grosbeaks by this time.

Not long after lamenting about the lack of these delightful species of birds plucking black-oil sunflower seeds from my fly-through feeder, I happened to hear the cheery song of the pine grosbeak coming from the woodland next to my house while I filled the feeders one Saturday morning. A few minutes later, once inside the house, I watched from the kitchen window as a small flock of seven took turns feeding from the feeder and on the ground below. I smiled at the sight of these pleasant visitors, glad to see them once again.

Appearing as overgrown finches, grosbeaks make up an interesting group of birds that are among my favorites. Two species of grosbeaks, the evening grosbeak and the pine grosbeak, belong to the family Frigillidae, while the other five North American grosbeaks -- crimson-collared, yellow, black-headed, rose-breasted, and blue grosbeaks -- are members of the family Cardinalidae, the same family that northern cardinals belong to. Of all the grosbeaks however, only three species regularly occur in Minnesota: evening, pine, and rose-breasted.

The bills of grosbeaks tell us much about the types of foods these birds prefer. All grosbeaks are primarily seedeaters and their strong, oversized conical-shaped bills are specially designed to crack seeds. Still, grosbeaks will also feed on buds, fruits, small nuts, and insects.

Evening grosbeaks are the most brightly colorful of the three species of grosbeaks occurring in Minnesota. The male's beautiful yellow, black, and white plumage contrasts sharply with the winter landscape. They really brighten up a backyard! Gregarious as they come, evening grosbeaks can deplete a supply of black-oil sunflower seeds in no time at all.

An irruptive species (otherwise known as those species of birds inhabiting further north but migrate elsewhere when food is scarce), evening grosbeaks are "irregularly common" here in Minnesota. Just as other irruptive species of birds do like pine siskins, purple finches, and common red polls, evening grosbeaks come and go depending on the severity of the winters and the food supply "up north". Some years you see 'em, and some years you don't.

And when you do observe evening grosbeaks, they typically show up in large and raucous flocks. Their calls are constant and sparrow-like, so it isn't hard to identify their presence even before you actually see them.

As previously mentioned, another Minnesota grosbeak, the striking looking pine grosbeak, is a stocky bird about the size of an American robin. Males are mostly rosy red in color, like a rosy wine, with other parts colored grayish, pinkish, and black. White wing bars are diagnostic traits that you can also use for identification. And unlike the bills of other grosbeaks, the beaks of pine grosbeaks are shorter and are strongly curved -- almost raptor-like in shape.

Like the evening grosbeak, pine grosbeaks are irruptive and highly social species too. Pine grosbeaks will often spend considerable time at feeding stations once arriving. Thus, plenty of viewing time is the reward for those lucky enough to attract pine grosbeaks.

The third grosbeak occurring in Minnesota is the rose-breasted grosbeak. Unlike evening and pine grosbeaks, the migrant rose-breasted grosbeak does not spend the winters here in Minnesota, yet they do breed and nest here. The male rose-breasted grosbeaks' pleasant and melodious warbled robin-like songs are joyful songs to listen to come every May and June.

The male's rose-colored breast patch, white belly, and black head and back are unique, making their identification nearly unmistakable. And interestingly, both genders sing. Even so, it's the male that sings most frequently. The song is robin-like, but more hurried. Arriving to the Northland in early May, rose-breasted grosbeaks are usually the first species to migrate south when the nesting season ends.

I have been fortunate enough to have lived in areas where all three species have made appearances. When I managed the Wetlands, Pines, and Prairie Audubon Sanctuary near Warren, Minnesota (now called the Audubon Center of the Red River Valley), a whole flock of pine grosbeaks kept me company the entire winter of 2000.

It was a fairly mild winter, as winters go, and pine grosbeaks paid daily visits to all the Sanctuary's feeders. I often observed large flocks of the birds feeding on red cedar berries or perched in the canopies of tall cottonwood trees vocalizing their sing-song phrases. It was such a pleasure to hear singing pine grosbeaks in the middle of winter.

So, too, large flocks of evening grosbeaks have, over the years, made my window-time very pleasurable -- although not this winter yet. The brilliant yellow coloration of their plumage adds dazzle to color-starved eyes grown accustomed to drab wintertime landscapes. As well, the rose-breasted grosbeak -- their gorgeous rose-on-white breast plumage and their soothing song are certainly among Minnesota's favorite feathered friends.

Grosbeaks -- pine, evening, and rose-breasted -- are only one small group of the many, many species of birds occurring here in the Northland. Distinctive, colorful, musical, and social; lucky are we to see them -- or to at least know they're around -- as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

(Klemek is the DNR Area Wildlife Supervisor in Detroit Lakes. You can contact him at bklemek@yahoo.com)

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