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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

A female grosbeak. © Scott Nielsen

February 2002

Quiet winter visitors

Pine grosbeaks are big, shy northern guests.

Anita Carpenter

A female grosbeak. © Scott Nielsen

Winter is upon us. It's cold and snowy, but birdwatchers don't despair. Now is the season to stock feeders with seeds and suet, and patiently wait to see what arrives. For the more adventuresome, it's time to bundle up and battle the elements to search for the more elusive birds of winter.

Some north-of-the-border nesters only visit us in winter. Common redpolls may frequent your feeder, but you must seek out or chance upon snowy owls, northern hawk owls, northern shrikes, snow buntings and Lapland longspurs. Often the chase is futile, but there is always hope.

Other species are only seen statewide in winter when visitors from farther north bolster their numbers. Red-breasted nuthatches and dark-eyed juncos will come to a feeder. Colorful winter finches including evening grosbeaks, purple finches, pine siskins, red crossbills and white-winged crossbills are also drawn to a steady food supply. These nomads mingle with resident chickadees, blue jays, cardinals, goldfinches, white-breasted nuthatches, and downy and hairy woodpeckers to add color and life to a winter scene.

One of the rarer winter finches to visit Wisconsin is the pine grosbeak, Pinicola enucleator. It is a gentle, retiring species that slips in unnoticed. It doesn't announce its arrival with flashy colors and noisy chips as evening grosbeaks do. Pine grosbeaks often sit quietly in fruit-bearing trees, eating and resting. Although it is the largest of the grosbeaks at nine inches in length, the plump bird blends in well with the background and is easily overlooked. The male has a dull rosy red head and back, and a rosy red breast mixed with gray. The female is more somberly colored in overall gray except for the yellowish-green wash on her head and rump. Both sexes have long, slightly notched black tails and black wings with two white wing bars. Juvenile pine grosbeaks resemble females.

Though called a grosbeak, its beak does not dominate its face like the thick, efficient, seed-cracking bill of the other big-beaked winter finch, the evening grosbeak. A pine grosbeak's black beak is short, rounded, but still good-sized and ideal for eating berries.

Pine grosbeaks can be confused with the similarly colored white-winged crossbills that are shorter (six to seven inches long), have shorter tails and have less chunky profiles. Also, white-winged crossbills are unlikely to feed on fruits for their crossed bills are adapted for extracting seeds from cones.

Pine grosbeaks often travel in small flocks searching for the fruits and berries they prefer to eat. Juniper, winterberries, bittersweet, mountain ash berries and crabapples are favorites, as are the seeds and buds of maples, birches, alders and cedars. The grosbeaks feed quietly in trees or may gather on the ground and roads to feed on scattered seeds. These birds are relatively tame and seem slow to react to passing cars. Pine grosbeaks probably will not come to feeders unless really stressed, but they may visit yards replete with a good fruit and berry supply.

As their genus name pinicola implies (pinus is Latin for pine and col means to dwell), pine grosbeaks live in the spruce-fir (boreal) forest of Canada where they prefer woodland edges, streamsides and brushy clearings. Nesting begins anytime from May into June. Females lay two to six blue-green eggs in a bulky stick nest lined with mosses, which is placed either low to the ground in a thick shrub or as high as 30 feet on an evergreen branch. Incubation is believed to last 13 to 14 days, and the young leave the nest when they are three weeks old. The pine grosbeaks only raise one brood per year given the short northern summer.

Pine grosbeaks rarely leave their nesting areas, so it's an unexpected joy to see them here. Although I search for them every winter, more often than not, I am unsuccessful. Someday I hope to hear their soft, melodic warbles on their home turf, but that will require a trip to the boreal forest in June. Perhaps it's time to retire!

Anita Carpenter walks the roads, fields and forests near her Oshkosh home exploring for signs of winter birdlife.