Bleeding Hearts

Steve Whiteby Steve White
Weirs Times Contributing Writer

When they descend on your backyard this spring, be certain to have a steady supply of black oil sunflower and safflower seeds. Rose-breasted grosbeaks are one of many neotropical migrants that spend the winter months in an area that stretches from central Mexico to northern South America. Around the month of May, these beautiful songbirds take up spring/summer residence in the northeastern United States and southern Canada. Males arrive first to select an appropriate nesting territory and begin to sing their unmistakable “screep” note which sounds like sneakers on a freshly waxed gymnasium floor.
After the males establish a territory, the females will arrive and choose amongst the prospective males for the best mate. Favorite habitats for rose-breasted grosbeaks are deciduous forests and woodland edges. Typical backyards divided by trees and shrubs are natural attractants for these birds to lay their eggs in.
In spring, the male rose-breasted grosbeak’s breeding plumage is striking. The head and back are black, the belly and rump are white and the upper breast has a beautiful triangular patch of bright red, the “bleeding heart.” Females resemble enlarged sparrows with a broad white eyebrow and heavily streaked breast. These robin-sized songbirds show white flashes in the wings as they fly, but the most positive identification of this species is the large, conical beak.
Rose breasted grosbeaks search for food in the same woodland areas they inhabit. The trademark beak allows them to consume a large variety of seeds, fruits and insects. A typical diet will include elms seeds, hickory blossoms and white ash buds. Gypsy moths and tent caterpillars are regular table provisions for this gardener’s friend. For backyard birders, it is especially delightful that these songbirds have an affinity for sunflower seeds. The white safflower seed with its high oil fat content is also relished by grosbeaks.
As summer approaches, the large flocks of rose-breasted grosbeaks break off into pairs with predetermined breeding territories to defend against their common enemy, the brown-headed cowbirds. Female cowbirds lay their eggs in grosbeak nests and leave the parental duties to the surrogate females. It is not uncommon for cowbirds to toss the grosbeak eggs to the ground to make room for their larger eggs instead.
These “bleeding hearts” are cousins to the brilliantly plumaged evening grosbeaks from Canada. It is a blessed backyard indeed to have both species simultaneously spend an afternoon as guests for a most colorful display.
Enjoy your birds!

Wild Bird Depot is located on Rt 11 in Gilford, NH.  Steve White is a contributing author in major publications, a guest lecturer at major conventions in Atlanta and St. Louis as well as the host of WEZS 1350AM radio show “Bird Calls” with Lakes Region Newsday @ 8:30AM.  Wild Bird Depot has donated over $5,000 to local rehabilitators and local nature centers since 1996. Be sure to check out our blog “Bird Droppings” via our website www.wildbirddepot.com.  Like us on Facebook for great contests and prizes.