by Frank Keim
This bird should have been a parrot. Its beak size alone makes it look like one, as do its shape, size and color, and maybe even its sweet song.
But it most definitely is not a parrot. It is the largest member of the family of finches known to birdwatchers like me as Fringillidae. Its scientific name, Pinicola enucleator, loosely translates as “pine dwelling seed eater.” And let me tell you, they do live up to their name.
At this moment, there are some of these colorful birds right outside my window, eating sunflower seeds that my wife spread on the snow early this morning. One after the other, the seed hulls are crunched and sloughed off, then spit out by their thick (gros) beaks, the kernel tongued out, then ground up and swallowed. It takes about two seconds per seed. After being swallowed, the parts of the kernel that escape grinding by the beak are ground even further by the grosbeak’s muscular stomach, called a gizzard. To help digest this roughage, the birds eat particles of grit that also end up in the gizzard.
The pine grosbeak is my favorite finch, especially in winter, because of its superb coloration. The males are a smoky shade of red, and the females a smoky yellow, but in winter, with snow everywhere, they appear as vivid rose red and mustard yellow. I remember while cross-country skiing once with a friend in Emmonak just after Christmas, when we came across a large alder bush completely filled with Pine grosbeaks. It reminded us of a Christmas tree brightly decorated with beautiful ornaments. I was so impressed that I wrote a poem about them after returning home. Here are a couple of verses:
Red and white flashes of
black wings on yellow feathers,
thick bills smacking searching
for alder cones
to crunch and grind
the diminutive nuts
in gizzard grit picked from river beaches
torn bare by Yukon devil winds.
their nervous tails
bounced from branch to branch
puffing snow at each push and hit
of naked toes,
to snow snatching a morsel
here and there,then darting off again,
the whole noisy crowd of them
In Emmonak, and generally in the Y-K Delta, the Yup’ik people call the Pine grosbeak, Puyiiq, or Puyiiraq, the same name they use to refer to the Common redpoll, a smaller member of the finch family. This is because of the smoky coloration of both of these species, since “puyiq” means “to be smoky” in Yup’ik. In Bristol Bay, the Yup’ik name is Ayugiugiq, which has something to do with quickly melting snow, maybe because that’s when they’re seen in large flocks.
In addition to its gizzard, the Puyiiraq has what is called a gular pouch. It is similar to a crop and used to store extra food as it eats. This is a northern adaptation, which allows it to get through the long cold winter night. The only other songbird with one of these is the Gray-crowned rosy finch, but it develops this pouch only during the nesting season to carry food to its chicks. (Pelicans also have these pouches, but they are not songbirds.)
Another interesting food tidbit is that during courtship the male feeds some of its seeds to the female. He also sings to her with a short musical warble to try to lure her into that very special relationship that guarantees the survival of their species.
If you search closely through the branches of a spruce tree, you may find their nest, which looks a little like a bulky robin’s nest. In it the female usually lays four bluish green, brown-speckled eggs, which she alone incubates for about two weeks. During this critical period, the male helps out by feeding the female. After three more tiring weeks of feeding their growing nestlings, the young finally leave the confines of their now very small home. They still have to learn how to forage for seeds, but very soon they are completely on their own, flying free through the forest singing their sweet clear whistling song.
If you’re like me and my wife and enjoy hearing their song close to home, throw some sunflower seeds out in your backyard and wait for the grosbeaks to find them. I guarantee, you won’t regret it.