By Lisa Bate
It is the middle of winter, long after the breeding songbirds have left. The forest emits silence more than sounds of any birds. It seems so empty, and then we hear the call and smile. It is the Pine Grosbeak (Pinicola enucleator) calling, as if to say, “Look at me, I’m still here!” I always say that the bird is describing itself, because it sounds like it is calling “pretty, pretty.” And pretty they are with their reds and orange-yellows, adding a splash of color in a winter landscape dominated by shades of gray.
The Pine Grosbeak is the largest finch in northwestern Montana, and one of the largest in the world, averaging 22.5 cm (9 in) long with a wingspan of 33 cm (13 in). The name “grosbeak” comes from the French words gros meaning big or fat and bec for beak. The species name enucleator means to tear apart, which describes this bird’s method of tearing open conifer cones to feed on seeds.
The male is recognized by his rosy-red head, breast, back and rump, while the female has a contrasting yellowish head and rump. The immature males are indistinguishable from the adult females until their second year. All Pine Grosbeaks have white wing-bars and tertial edges, with dark tails and wings, and yes, very BIG beaks.
Pine Grosbeaks are a boreal finch found in forests in the northern latitudes of the world and further south in the western mountain ranges of North America. Although Pine Grosbeaks can undergo winter irruptions—an irregular and massive migration in search of food—birds here in Montana are rarely found far from their breeding territories. These birds seem tolerant of humans nearby, allowing for close-up views. The best habitat in which to view these birds is the open, wet coniferous forests, especially those dominated by Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir. Outside of North America, they are found in subalpine and subarctic forests dominated by pine, spruce and birch.
Pine Grosbeaks forage mainly in trees and shrubs on buds, fruits, and seeds. They will also eat new needles on conifer branches. In our area, they especially like eating mountain ash berries and rocky mountain maple seeds. They will use their big beaks to bite through fruit skins and crush the seeds, before discarding the pulp. During most of the year, the diet of a Pine Grosbeak is comprised of 99% vegetative matter. In the breeding season they feed in pairs; outside of the breeding season they feed in small flocks. Flocks in the winter may stay near a tree until all the fruit is consumed. In localized areas, Pine Grosbeaks will feed on sunflower seeds provided at feeders.
During the breeding season males become very territorial, singing from treetops to defend their 400 m (1/4 mi)-diameter home range. Their song is beautiful and flute-like, with warbling pure sounds (https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/pine-grosbeak). The female builds a cup-like nest from conifer twigs, small roots and grasses, then lines it with lichens, grasses and a few feathers. Most nests are on the south side of a tree about 3 m (10 ft) up from the ground, close to the trunk. The female lays 3-4 pale-blue eggs with some speckles. She incubates the eggs for 13-14 days, while the male continues to defend the territory and bring her food in the nest.
Born naked and helpless, the young grosbeaks quickly develop to fledge in 2-3 weeks due to their parents feeding them a high protein diet of insects and spiders mixed with some fruit. The parents develop throat pouches allowing them to carry more food to their young.
Pine Grosbeaks are listed as a species of Least Concern meaning that they are common and widespread throughout most of their range. In most parts of their range, however, this is very difficult to assess due to their irruptive tendencies. Here in Montana, car collisions are one of the most common reasons of mortality for this species due to their attraction to the sand and salt used on snowy roads. So if you see birds on the road in winter, please “give them a brake.” And plan walks in the wet, coniferous forests so you too can enjoy the sounds and colors of this winter finch.