By Bill Chaisson
Two years ago, I wrote a hopeful column about my wish to see some irruptive finches. I didn’t see any at my feeders in 2018, but from what I’ve seen at my mother’s feeders and what I am reading at NH Birds online, this is a year to see them.
The pine siskins have been all around us for weeks, and there have been widespread records of crossbills, but lately reports have been coming in of pine grosbeaks. This is sort of a unicorn species for me, for some reason. For one thing, they are very pretty. The males are washed with a shade of red that seems to be common among northern finches. It is often referred to as “rosy” as in gray-crowned rosy finch (a group of western species), but this red has the quality of being bright and faded at the same time. So, rather than looking like a warm flush, it more resembles a cool blush that precedes the onset of frostbite.
Another impressive attribute of the pine grosbeak is its size. Although I have not seen it remarked upon elsewhere, it seems to be the largest North American finch bar one, the yellow grosbeak of the Sierra Madre in Mexico. Pinicola enucleator grows to be 9 inches long, which is not just larger than nearly all finches, but bigger than any North American songbird outside of a few thrushes, mimic thrushes, and jays.
Like many taiga species, P. enucleator has a broad range, extending in broad swath from the Brooks Range in Alaska to Labrador in the east and down to wherever there is continuous coniferous forest, namely through the Rocky Mountains, south to Lake Superior, and into the Maritime provinces. They appear irregularly through the eastern United States in the winter. David Sibley’s guide (2000) indicates they have been spotted as far south as South Carolina.
Apparently, they move “in a rather sedate and deliberative manner,” according to Herbert K. Job in my beloved 1917 “Birds of America.” Although they feed on the seeds of coniferous trees when they are at home in the North, they seem drawn to fruit when they are down here. This old reference attributes their influx into the U.S. as due to a small cone crop in Canada and notes that this occurs “once every half dozen years or so.” When the pine grosbeaks come, Job says, that means many members of that ecosystem will come along. Not only other finches, but also goshawks and northern shrikes are expected.
In pragmatic Edwardian style, the “Birds of America” gives an account of the bird’s “economic status,” i.e., are they harmful, beneficial or neutral. The pine grosbeak is a benign bird by their lights. Its diet, in addition to seeds, includes tree (leaf) buds of coniferous trees, but not very many, and the fruit of trees like juniper, mountain ash, and maples. For the latter they perform the service of dispersing their seeds. In the “Atlas of Breeding Birds in New Hampshire” of 1996, Tudor Richards states that the pine grosbeak’s diet changes with the seasons, feeding on the above during the spring and summer and being drawn to apples and crabapples in the winter.
In the 19th century observers—including H.D. Thoreau—reported seeing this bird in the White Mountains and at Lake Umbagog during the summer, including some in juvenile plumage, which suggests they bred there. The atlas includes the pine grosbeak in a special section at the back of the book called “Accounts of Historically or Potentially Breeding Species.” Richards did not believe there to be a resident breeding population, even in the 19th century, but instead ascribed scattered historical records to sporadic southern extensions of the species’ range. It should be noted that all reported records of breeding where from higher than 3,800 feet. Richards notes that heavy logging and outbreaks of spruce budworm in the late 20th century had reduced suitable habitat in northern New Hampshire, but that good habitat remained in the White Mountains.
The Birds of New Hampshire of 2013 defines an irruption as any year the pine grosbeak is seen widely south of the White Mountains, of which this seems to be one. It tends to arrive earlier in these years and to stay later in the spring. The first big irruption documented was in the winter of 1892-93, but observers between 1880-1910 considered it to be a regular winter visitor. The next big incursion came in 1985-96, but then another did not occur until 1918-1919 and then the next was in 1930-31. Since 1950 there have been six major winter flights with the most recent recorded in this reference in 2007-2008. The overall pattern seems to have intervals on the order of a decade between flights from the 1930s to the mid 1970s and more frequent ones since, but that is just my eyeball analysis and not statistical.
I have still not laid eyes on one but hope that this is the winter I do so. The males have extensive red on the head, breast, sides, back, and rump. The wings and tail are a dark gray-black, and they have two white wing bars. The females are slate-gray almost everywhere the males are red, except for the head, which is tinged with olive. Juveniles resemble the females but may have traces of red on the head and rump. For a grosbeak, this species has a very small bill, certainly much smaller than that of the (unrelated) rose-breasted or evening grosbeaks.
The flight is said to be slow, buoyant and undulating, and the size and shape of the bird is said to remind one of a robin. That’s a big finch.
Bill Chaisson has been a birdwatcher from the age of 10. He is a former managing editor of the Eagle Times and now lives and works in the town of Wilmot.