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The “Other” Grosbeaks

August 26, 2010

Black-headed grosbeaks begin to appear at our feeders around the end of April. Many continue to move up into the canyons above us, but there are always a few that nest around the neighborhood. We see them at our feeders on a daily basis, typically in the mornings and evenings. During July and August they bring their young to gorge on black-oil sunflower seeds as they prepare to migrate to their Mexican wintering grounds.

Black-headed grosbeaks are members of the Cardinalidae family and of the Pheucticus genus, as is the rose-breasted grosbeak, a common eastern bird that is seen rarely but on an annual basis in the Great Basin. The yellow grosbeak, a Mexican bird that occasionally strays into the United States, also belongs to this genus. The Cardinalidae family includes the blue grosbeak, another Great Basin bird and member of the Passerina genus which makes it cousin to the four colorful bunting species found variously around the continent. The family also includes the northern cardinal, the common North American tanagers, and a number of beautiful grosbeaks found only in Central and South America.

Pine grosbeaks and evening grosbeaks belong to the finch family, Fringillidae. Both are found in the high country of the Great Basin. The evening grosbeak breeds in the pine-oak habitat above our home but is notoriously secretive and maddeningly elusive. If the species had a motto it would be “don’t call us, we’ll call you.” Not that there’s much to its call. The evening grosbeak has been described as “a songbird that doesn’t regularly use songs,” rather instead relying on a series of short chips and trills to communicate. The birds are omnivorous and seem equally content with a variety of insects or seeds and fruits. This undoubtedly lessens the likelihood of having them visit backyard feeders. Those days on which they call on us are rare, a gift from the bird gods.

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