Invaders From the North: Pine Grosbeaks and Cedar and Bohemian Waxwings

Pine grosbeak, by Nick Saunders

My story—harrowingly—begins far back in time. Ada and I had driven to New York’s Adirondack Park for a quiet Christmas week, isolated in the snowscape from urban hubbub, looking forward to snowshoeing and some winter birding. On a winding road, we spotted a flock of eight or ten birds then unfamiliar to us, pecking at the gravel spread by a road crew on the recently plowed surface. I checked my Peterson Guide and confirmed that the birds were pine grosbeaks, occasional invaders from remote, underpopulated regions in Canada and “life birds” for both of us. We settled in to study them through our binoculars.

Then, in the distance, around a curve, came a cruising pickup truck. Plenty of time for the grosbeaks to rise from the road and fly into the trees. The truck came on, not slowing. The birds, unconcerned, continued to peck at the gravel. As we watched, unbelieving, the truck plowed into the flock in an explosion of feathers and passed on, leaving dead and dying grosbeaks along the roadside. One of the birds died in my hands.

I thought of that scene again a week or so ago when a similar flock of pine grosbeaks showed up in the small orchard of ornamental crabapples outside our kitchen window in Maine. The trees’ fruits are small and round, about the size of a lowbush blueberry. Unpalatable to us, they are relished by wandering flocks of birds late in fall. Robins will sometimes arrive on their way south and, in their numbers, stay until they have cleaned the entire crop from the trees. Cedar waxwings or, alternately, Bohemian waxwings often spend several days here at the feast.

Last year when the Bohemians arrived, a single robin with a damaged wing fearlessly defended one of the trees against a large flock of them. The robin seemed incapable of perching in the tree for any length of time and always dropped to the grass beneath it after it had driven off the waxwings. When they approached again, the robin once more flew up to do battle. It spent most of the day, feathers ruffled, crouched on the ground. One morning, after an early snow, it had disappeared.

Pine grosbeaks sometimes come too. They are inhabitants of subarctic and boreal forests all around the northern regions of Europe, Asia, and North America. They aren’t true migrants. Years often go by between their visits to the orchard. But then some failure in their food supply in autumn sends the grosbeaks wandering south from Canada into New England and other northeastern states on what ornithologists call an “irruption.” This has been a year of their wide appearance in our region and I have fielded several telephone calls from neighbors asking what in the world are these strange birds in their yards.

It is always a delight to host pine grosbeaks. They are large, long-tailed finches, perhaps eight to ten inches, with two prominent white wing bars. The males are mainly rosy red, the females gray with darker wings and splashes of golden or greenish yellow on their heads and rumps. They have a sweet, flute-like call, which often helps us find them in the conifer forest.

When these birds are present, we can walk out into the orchard and they pay us no mind. They are not simply tame but seem to be oblivious of us as they move slowly, almost lethargically, among the branches, crushing seeds in the “crabs” and discarding the pulp. It is as if we are wandering in a primitive garden somewhere back in a mythical golden age when lions lay down with lambs and humans posed no threat to trusting birds and other beasts. Living out their lives mostly in remote northern forests, pine grosbeaks are primitively unwary birds.

Alas, we already knew that.