Wild Profile: Meet the pine grosbeak

A male pine grosbeak in winter By Mircea Costina/Shutterstock

The pine grosbeak is a happy, flashy sight at your winter bird feeder. In 1851, Henry David Thoreau called them “magnificent winter birds” and of course he was right. You can’t miss them, with their round heads, plump bodies, and stubby bills. Despite the name, they’re not particularly fond of pine trees. They prefer to stick to spruce and fir, and, in the winter, fruiting trees like mountain ash or crabapple.

Pine grosbeaks are known for being ridiculously tame—they’ll allow birders to get very close, never fleeing, apparently fine with the up-close-and-personal interactions. In winter, they forage in small flocks, methodically picking at tree buds, seeds, and fruit. At your winter feeder, they’ll go for sunflower seeds, seed mixes, and suet.

Pine grosbeaks are prone to “irruption years”: years when they fly south in the winter, not because of the cold but because of low food supplies. (Bohemian waxwings and some redpolls have the same behaviour.) For example, if it’s a poor year for mountain ash—when the trees produce little fruit—pine grosbeaks will abandon their winter haunts for warmer southern digs. Bye bye, birdies! But don’t worry, they’ll be back.

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