At first I saw only European Starlings in the tree, though my ears insisted they heard waxwings. A moment later, several flew in and landed in the top of the tree. I scanned the flock in case there were any Pine Grosbeaks, and it didn’t take long before I found one. Then, after a minute, several others arrived!
There were about ten Pine Grosbeaks altogether, about half the number of waxwings. All of them displayed the golden hues of females or young males except one; a single rosy pink adult male fed at the very top of the tree, beyond the reach of my camera. As I watched, the birds landed on increasingly lower branches until they were right at eye level, gorging themselves on berries. This one in particular spent several minutes on a branch right in front of me, and I’m guessing by the red feathers coming in on the cheek and crown that this is a young male.
The Pine Grosbeak is my very favourite winter finch, and the one I see the least often. It has been four years since the last time these finches came south in large numbers, and I’m thrilled to see so many around again. The Pine Grosbeak is the largest of the boreal or winter finches, and the most tame. It is very unwary; I felt as though I could have reached out to the birds in front of me and enticed them to land on my hand. They seem very gentle and unhurried while they’re feeding, unlike the energetic, busy redpolls and siskins I’ve seen clustered around feeders.
If you spend enough time watching the grosbeaks feed you will notice that they are very messy eaters, often ending up with berry pulp all over their bills. This is because they are not ingesting the berries, but rather the seeds within. Their latin name, Pinicola enucleator, means “pine-dwelling seed-remover”, and they use their thick, curved bills to remove the seeds from within cones and berries. Pine Grosbeaks may even show up at bird feeders where they feed on sunflower seeds.
In contrast, Bohemian Waxwings ingest the whole berry. Waxwings have an extremely large mouth opening, called the gape, to enable them to swallow the fruit in one gulp. Because they eat nothing but fruit in the winter, and because these fruits are high in sugar content but low in protein and other nutrients, they must eat a lot of berries to obtain sufficient nutrition. They do not digest the seeds or pits; these are removed from the pulp and excreted about 20 minutes after being ingested.
Both the waxwings and grosbeaks form large flocks in the winter, traveling in groups in search of new food sources. Once they find such a food source, such as stands of ornamental fruit trees in cities, they usually only linger long enough to strip the trees of their fruits, disappearing as soon as the berries are gone.
Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast states that the European mountain-ash and ornamental crabapple crops are poor to fair in southern Ontario, so these crops won’t last long. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Pine Grosbeaks all disappeared from our area by January, continuing their journey south in search of food once the crabapple and mountain ash trees have been depleted; the waxwings will likely stay, and switch to a diet of Buckthorn berries instead. Buckthorn is a foreign and invasive shrub that is abundant in our area, and there are plenty of berries available. Although not the birds’ first choice, some species such as the European Starling, American Robin and Bohemian Waxwing will switch to Buckthorn to get through the winter rather than flying south.
Spending time with these beautiful, colourful winter wanderers was the highlight of my day. I hope they both stick around for a long time; their presence will help make the winter bearable!