Summer Sweethearts

Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks

Love birds abound in fields, ponds, gravel driveways, and wooded areas throughout the Finger Lakes Region – that is, bird couples, not the little parrots native to Africa and Madagascar. In some bird species, finding a mate means energetic, twitterpated excitement and a one-night (or day as it may be) stand, leaving the female to mostly or completely fend for herself afterwards, such as in red-winged blackbirds. For others, it is a life-long relationship with yearly displays to strengthen the bond before mating, like red-tail hawks. And for the majority, it is a season-long romance that stretches through the tasks of egg-laying and chick-rearing, to terminate at migration as they each go their own way.

Ornithologists call birds that stay together through one nesting season socially monogamous. Birds have an extremely relaxed sense of monogamy though and those that optimize this breeding strategy will work together to incubate and raise their young but will also have additional partners on the side. From a biological standpoint though, this system maximizes species fitness: the birds don’t put all their eggs in one basket, so to speak.

An example of a socially monogamous species is the rose-breasted grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus). Males of this species have a bright red chest, sport a black jacket and head, and a solid white belly and rump. The female is trickier to identify as she is streaked brown and white, though she has a distinct, bold eyebrow line. First-year males will resemble females in coloring but have an orange or dull red chest. Both males and females have a large pale-colored beak which they make use of in their omnivorous diet which depends on season and location as they migrate between northern North America and Central America.

Maybe I’m just anthropomorphizing, or projecting human emotions on animals, but rose-breasted grosbeaks always seem to me to be in love, not just in lust. They sit pensively at my feeders, sometimes neither eating nor singing, the male flapping down on his short wings before the female alights. They seem unhurried and content, the way a person feels when they are in love. During Arthur Cleveland Bent’s compilation of observations on bird habits, Winsor M. Tyler sent him this anecdote, “The two grosbeaks appear truly fond of each other. We see the female bird turn her head upward toward her mate and their beaks come together in a sort of kiss. All is harmony and peace, a picture of affection and contentment.” It is also reported that they sing softly to each other as they switch positions on the nest. Who doesn’t wish for someone to sing sweetly to them as they sit down for a rest? Sounds like love to me!


gabriellewheeler_profileStory and photo by Gabrielle L. Wheeler