It could be called Grosbeak Wars.” Every year about Maytime when the finches and warblers are migrating through Number One Daughter (NOD) and We Two Town Folk (WTTF) have a competition over who sees the most Rose-Breasted Grosbeak (RBG) in the back yard plus other of their relatives and fellow migrants. This year, 2013, has been a great year to see them, those beautiful black and white stocky plump birds with the rosy-red patches and the gross beak that identifies them.
Seven to eight inches in length, they are in the finch family, believe it or not, that is why you see the Gold or Purple Finch and warblers with them. The male has a ring of white in flight on the upper plumage. The female is less noticeable by having streaked brown plumage like a Sparrow which is related, too. The Grosbeak range from as far north as Manitoba and Ontario in Canada to New Jersey and Ohio, west as far as Kansas and Missouri. And spend the winter in Central and South America.
Related are the Pine Grosbeak, Black-Headed, Blue and Evening Grosbeak, all about the same size but is distinctly different in colors and perhaps a bit smaller.
It’s that thick beak that sets them apart from most other birds. It’s a strong clamp made for cracking tough seeds, their preferred food. The Pine Grosbeak is a larger version of a Purple Finch while the white bar winged Cross-bill is a dull rosy purple that grabs your attention. Its crossed bill at the tip sets it apart. The drawing of the skeleton and crossed bill is seen here (top). They look like pruning shears.
Along with the Cardinal, Pine Siskin, European and American Finches are lumped together as “Winter Finches.” The RBG, however, is lumped in with the Finch and Weaver Finches. Scientists are so picky. The Rusty Towhee is part of this, too, and for a split second when seeing the black and white bird with the side stripes of rust color, you might think it a grosbeak. But no.
Birds such as the Oregon Junco and the Slate-colored Junco are “cousins” and will bring animation to the winter bird feeder. Some of the stripy, streaky Sparrows come to the family reunions, too.
Bill of Cross-Bills
Have you bird watchers ever had a Painted Bunting lined up in your binoculars? They are treat to the jaundiced eye—red breast, purple head, green back. The female is all-over greenish, the only finch of that shade. They are found in the Gulf and Southern states. They range from North Carolina across Mississippi westward to Arkansas and Missouri. They winter in Florida and Louisiana, occasionally into the tropics.
Other Buntings are the Indigo and the Lazuli, all over blue, and the Lazuli is turquoise on head and upper parts. It has a cinnamony under parts and white wing bars. The Indigo is so exciting to glimpse as it darts here and there in the countryside. At first you might think it a Bluebird but they are a duller blue and have a reddish breast much like a Robin, both of them being Thrush. The Robin’s a bit bigger. We are not apt to see the Lazuli because they breed in Dakotas, Nebraska and Western Oklahoma. The name Bunting probably comes from the Old English word BUNIYLE or BUNTLIN in Scottish. That describes the bird’s compact, plump shape a compared to a swaddled baby in the familiar nursery rhyme, “Bye Baby Bunting.” The Bunting is thought to have originated in South America and spread widely throughout Euro-Asia and Africa and are confusingly related in part to the Sparrow in North America. Many of our Sparrows are Buntings. Got that?! Some of the North American Buntings are set up in the Cardinal family like the Indigo, and Lazuli. And to confuse us further, the Painted Bunting, for instance, is listed as a Passerina ciris, the passerine meaning “Little sparrow,” although it’s not a sparrow. The “ciris” is for a Greek princess, Scylla, who was transformed into a bird when about to drown. That story goes on and on! Along with that anecdote is one concerning that the Lazuli Bunting in Latin, P. amorena, meaning “lovely.” Also the Lazuli and Indigo will interbreed to confuse us even farther.
Some of you may have had the passing thought to wonder if the bird Bunting has anything to do with those drapes of red, white, and blue we see so many of about this time of year—bunting. Despite lots of deep research there is none so far. Originally that cloth for the patriotic cloth was called bOnting, with an “O.” And although bonting and bunting both flutter, there is no connection! Oh, yes, Bonting was the cloth used to sift flour!
Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds will show and tell you about any bird east of the Rocky Mountains. As well there are several other guides to fill you in on other species in other parts of the world. The first was published in 1934 and with eighteen million copies sold, it’s gone through several printings. And, it may surprise you to know that it revolutionized bird watching from mostly the academic or museum-related subject to Every Man, capturing the interest of all levels of society until its become the nation’s number one hobby. Yes!
Roger Tory Peterson was a shy, reserved loner who developed the passion to tell the story of birds in drawing and text. He was a self-taught artist who trudged thousands of miles in inhospitable territories around the globe, sketching on site then coloring them. He did all of the art work and text in his books. He was “ruthless” in simplifying the descriptions so it was short, basic but key to guide your eye.
When in the 1980’s National Geographic came out with a bird guide it was the work of sixteen artists and thirty writers!
Before the twentieth century bird guides were almost entirely taken from dead birds, shot through the sights of a gun, the first bird watching device! John James Audobon has been applauded for decade for his extensive work in painting birds in dramatic vignettes but shooting the bird was the method. Peterson trudged thousands of miles in all weather and climatic conditions, as well as inhospitable landscapes. He died at eighty-eight in 1996 hard at work in revising the Field Guide.
So far the “Grosbeak War” is likely a tie though NOD has WTTF beat on numbers of Cardinals. Anecdotes found in other books reveal how that all-red bird was named. It is believed the cardinals of the Catholic church, not the other way around as we might believe. The red dye of the Cardinal’s robes was uncommon and a long process in obtaining it came from the rare cochineal insect. Cardo the ecclesiastics name came from Cardo meaning hinges.
Ideas balanced by cardinals were compared to a door resting on hinges. Some anonymous brother probably spent a lot of time on that! It makes a good story though just as notes about the Goldfinch whose yellow and black flight draws one to the window, stays around all year and throughout all of America, coast to coast. They don’t nest until July when the thistles have puffed out with their downy nest building material.
Besides the thistle down for nesting, the Goldfinch uses its seeds for baby food. In winter the Goldie turns a greenish brown much like a sparrow.
There are almost endless stories to be told about the birds in your backyard, your own and others. In Peterson’s Field Guide just one section is labeled Grosbeaks, Finches, Sparrows and Buntings: Fringilidae and we barely touched on the information there so there’s more to go in that wonderful book, a few of whose pictures are used here for your enjoyment.