Thursday, June 13, 2013

“A rare and beautiful bird”

“What was that rare and beautiful bird in the dark woods under the Cliffs, with black above and white spots and bars, a large triangular blood-red spot on breast, and sides of breast and beneath white?
Note a warble like the oriole, but softer and sweeter. It was quite tame. I cannot find this bird described. I think it must be a grosbeak. At first I thought I saw a chewink [that is, a towhee], it sat within a rod [16 feet] sideways to me, and I was going to call Sophia to look at it, but then it turned its breast full toward me and I saw the blood-red breast, a large triangular painted spot occupying the greater part of the breast. It was in the cool, shaded underwood by the odd path just under the Cliff. It is a memorable event to meet with so rare a bird. Birds answer to flowers, both in their abundance and their rareness. The meeting with a rare and beautiful bird like this is like meeting with some rare and beautiful flower, which you may never find again, perchance, like the great purple fringed orchis, at least. How much it enhances the wildness and the richness of the forest to see it in some beautiful bird which you never detected before.”

—From the Journal of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), June 13, 1853.

Thoreau was right – he had seen a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. And these birds are indeed as lovely as he described; that rose-red triangle is just gorgeous. Here are recent photos of male Rose-breasted Grosbeaks at our feeders:

If you look closely, you can see that each bird has a distinctively-shaped red badge, which makes it possible to tell them apart. (The females have cryptic coloring - I have photos which I will share another time.)

Just this morning I said to D, “They look so exotic, like something from the tropics.” Well, they are from the tropics; they spend most of their year in South America, dispersing to northern regions, such as ours, only for the brief breeding season.

Thoreau describes the Grosbeak’s song as “a warble like the oriole, but softer and sweeter” – to my ears, it’s more like a Robin’s song, but higher, sweeter, and un poco allegro.

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