Thursday, February 2, 2017

Pine Grosbeak

Colourful Winter Finches

Pine Grosbeak - Male
A gentle melodic twitter coming from a group of apple trees is a clue to look among the branches and on the ground under the trees for Pine Grosbeaks.  Their full song is a beautiful melodious warble.  

Pine Grosbeaks are a large plump finch (23 cm/9 in) which visits us only in winter, some winters more than others.  This year is a poor finch year so we have only a few Pine Grosbeaks.  They love fruit and berries so would be found in apple and crab trees and in bushes bearing fruit at this time of year.  

The male Pine Grosbeak shows a beautiful pink-to-reddish-pink colour on the head, breast, back and rump.  He is gray on the sides and belly.  His wings are black with two fine white wing bars.  The tail is long, black and notched.  The bill is black, large but stubby.  There is significant regional variation in the intensity of the pink/red colour.

Pine Grosbeak - Female
The female shows a lot of light gray colour with deep yellow to rust on the head, back, and rump.  The wings are gray with two fine white wing bars.  Juveniles resemble the females.

The only species here one would mistake for a Pine Grosbeak is the White-winged Crossbill.  It has similar coloration but is only 2/3 the size and has a very distinctive crossed bill.  Both species feed on spruce cones so partly share the same habitat.

Pine Grosbeak - Male
In the photos above the grosbeaks were feeding on crab apples.  They are a tame species and do not pay humans much attention.  One can get reasonably close for photos.  It is important to give these birds respect and not get so close they are forced to fly away.  They are in these feeding areas because they need food and safety.

Pine Grosbeak - Female [N Poirier Photo]
The photo above shows a different female than the previous one.  Notice the yellow colour is much darker and she is eating high-bush cranberries.  

The Pine Grosbeak is a holarctic species.  It lives in the northern hemisphere around the world.  Here in North America it breeds in the far north.  It winters in the Maritime provinces, the southern parts of the rest of Canada (except British Columbia) and the northern states east of the Rockies.  It is a permanent resident in the area in between these areas.  It prefers coniferous woods as its name implies but feeds on fruit mainly in winter.  

When we have winters with a large population of Pine Grosbeaks present, it is called an 'irruption'.  What makes years when we have many and years when we have few or none?  The abundance or lack of fruit determines its movement in flocks.  That is what drives irruptive years and years of scarcity of this species.  We have lots of fruit this year but they must also be finding plenty further north, hence the low population here so far this winter.  We may have more flocks move in as the winter progresses.

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