Grosbeaks are the Bandana Bird

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeaks can be tough to spot as they skulk among tree leaves.
Photo credit: Don Severson

by Val Cunningham
Contributing Writer

Remember that Coasters tune with the refrain: “He wears a red bandana, plays a blues pianna, in a honky-tonk, down in Mexico?” Well, who’s to say the rock and roll group’s song doesn’t also refer to one of the most beautiful birds in backyard and woodlot—at least until you get to the ‘pianna’ part?

The male rose-breasted grosbeak is a big, boldly marked bird, with predominantly black and white plumage. And yes, the males do wear a red bandana—a distinctive triangle of red/pink feathers under the chin, and some even spend the winter in Mexico.

That red chest marking is so attention grabbing that we sometimes miss the reason the birds are called ‘grosbeaks’, that huge, pale beak that can crack the toughest nut. If it reminds you of a cardinal’s beak, that’s because the two birds are cousins, members of a vibrantly colored, big-beaked clan.

Male rose-breasted grosbeaks sing as beautifully as the Coasters do, too, and it’s often said their rich, sweet whistles sound like a robin who’s had singing lessons (hear them here).

The grosbeaks at your feeders have just returned from a winter-long sojourn in Mexico, Central America, Panama and northern South America, so they’re true long-distance migrants. They’ve survived an awe-inspiring migratory feat, flying nonstop across the 500+ mile Gulf of Mexico, before landing on U.S. soil.

A phenomenal sight

Some years ago, on a trip to the Florida Panhandle, several of us happened to be in the right place at the right time to observe a spectacular sight. After a stormy night, we drove to St. George Island, a thin spit of land just off the coast in the Gulf. Starting at about 9 a.m., birds began to drop down, exhausted after crossing the vast span of water: scarlet tanagers by the dozens, Baltimore orioles in profusion and more rose-breasted grosbeaks than I’d ever seen at one time. The poor birds were almost literally panting after such a long flight against the storm’s winds.

This phenomenon continued for several hours as birds reached the first landfall after their long journey, and we watched as the trees bent under the weight of so many bright birds. There must have been 30 orioles, 50 tanagers and 50 rose-breasted grosbeaks in view at a time, a sight I don’t expect I’ll ever encounter again.

Masters of invisibility

The only strike against this beautiful bird is its ability to hide so effectively. Once the trees leaf out in spring, grosbeaks can be heard singing their lovely song from the tree canopy, but can be nearly impossible to spot. It’s even harder to find female grosbeaks, brownish birds with brown-streaked breasts and a wide white “eyebrow.” They’re the ones who’ll be sitting on the nest, so it doesn’t pay to stand out the way males do.

Rose-breasted grosbeaks travel to our state to take advantage of spring and summer’s lush insect life. They feed these to their nestlings, and the high-protein diet builds strong bodies, allowing fledglings to grow fast and leave the nest quickly. Predators—cats, larger birds, squirrels, chipmunks and others—are always on the lookout for helpless young birds, so nestlings must grow quickly and leave the nest behind as soon as they’re able.

Grown-up grosbeaks consume many of the insects we consider harmful, such as beetles, ants and sawflies. They feast on berries in season, including elderberries, raspberries, mulberries and juneberries, and they’re fans of weed seeds and feeder seeds. They’re one of the few birds that I know of that eats milkweed seeds.

If you want to hear some beautiful harmonizing this spring and summer, stock your feeders with sunflower seeds. And consider planting some fruit-bearing shrubs and small trees to help them prepare for future fall migrations.

St. Paul, Minn., resident Val Cunningham, who leads bird hikes for the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines.