Here to return to
THE ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK
THERE is never a May passes, of recent years, but some one comes to me, or writes to me, to inquire about a wonderfully beautiful bird that he has just seen for the first time. He does hope I can tell him what it is. It is a pretty large bird, he goes on to say, — but not so long as a robin, he thinks, if I question him,—mostly black and white, but with such a splendid rosy patch on his breast or throat! What can it be? He had no idea that anything so handsome was ever to be seen in these parts.
If all the questions that people ask about birds were as easily answered as this one, I should be thankful. It is a rose-breasted grosbeak, I tell the inquirer. Perhaps he noticed that its bill was uncommonly stout. If he did, the fact is exceptional, for somehow the shape of the bill is a point which the average person seems very seldom to notice, although it is highly important. Anyhow, the rosebreast’s beak is most decidedly “gross.” And he is every whit as beautiful as my inquirer represents him to be. In that respect he ranks with the oriole and the scarlet tanager.
He is distinguished also for his song, which is a flowing warble, wonderfully smooth and sweet. To most ears it bears a likeness to the robin’s song, but it is beyond comparison more fluent and delicious, although not more hearty. Keep your ear open for such a voice, — by the middle of May if you live in New England, a little earlier if your home is farther south, — and you will be likely to hear it; for at that time the bird is not only common, but a very free singer.
In addition to his song, the rosebreast has a short call-note, which sounds very much like the squeak of a pair of rusty shears — a kind of hic, which you will find no difficulty about remembering if you have once learned it. His nest is generally built in a bush, often within reach of the hand, but I have seen it well up in a rather tall tree. The two birds spell each other in brooding, and are not only mutually affectionate, but very brave. I have known the mother bird to keep her seat even when I took hold of the bush below the nest and drew her almost against my face. She, by the way, is a very modestly dressed body, being not only without the rose-color, but without the clear contrast of black and white. To look at her, you might take her for a large sparrow.
The rose-color of the male, it should be said, is not confined to the patch on the breast, but is found also on the lining of the wings, where it is mostly unnoticed by the world, but where his mate, of course, cannot help admiring it as he flutters about her; for it is certain that female birds have a good eye for color, and believe that fine feathers help, at least, to make fine birds. The shade is of the brightest and most exquisite, and the total effect of the male’s plumage — jet black, pure white, and vivid rose-red — is quite beyond praise.
The birds, happily, are not shy, and prefer a fairly open or broken country rather than a dense wood. Last season one sang day after day directly under my windows, and undoubtedly had a mate and a nest somewhere close by. The male, it should be added, has the very pretty though dangerous-seeming habit of singing as he sits upon the eggs.