Web Text-ures Logo
Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio

(Return to Web Text-ures)
Click Here to return to
American Birds
Content Page

 Return to the Previous Chapter
Kellscraft Studio Logo



ONE day I crossed the road below the yellow-throat's garden, broke through the thick fringe of maples and syringa brush, and crawled along on my hands and knees under the canopy of tall ferns. The ground was soft and loamy. The dogwood saplings, the hazel and arrowwood bushes grew so thick that each vied with the other in stretching up to reach the life-giving light of the sun's rays. Underneath, the blackberry reached out its long, slender fingers and clutched the tallest ferns to hang its berries where they might catch a glint of the sun, for the beams sifted through only in places. I was in the thicket of the Grosbeak (Zamelodia melanocephala) .

For several years We have watched a pair of grosbeaks that spend their summers on the side hill in this clump. The same pair, no doubt, has returned to the thicket for at least three or four years. It seems I can almost recognize the notes of their song. If our ears were only tuned to the music of the birds, could we not recognize them as individuals, as we recognize our old friends?

In the grosbeak family, the cardinal or red-bird, is perhaps more familiar to us, since he is often seen behind the bars of a cage. But his colors fade in confinement, and he is no longer the brilliant bird of the wild that seems to have strayed up from the tropics. But even if the beauty of this bird should not survive, we have two other grosbeaks, the rose-breasted of the eastern states and the black-headed of the West, both alike in character and in habits.

The black-headed grosbeak is one of the birds of my childhood. As long ago as I can remember, I watched for him in the mulberry trees and about the elderberry bushes when the fruit was ripe. I could tell him from the other birds by his high-keyed call-note long before I knew his name. One day when I stopped to look for a bird that was carolling in one of the maples along the creek, I saw the grosbeak mother singing her lullaby, as she sat on her eggs. It looked to me so like a human mother's love. Few, if any other birds, sing in the home; perhaps they often long to but are afraid. As John Burroughs says, it is a very rare Occurrence for a bird to sing on its nest, but several times I have heard the grosbeak do it. How it came to be a custom of the grosbeak I do not know, for birds are, in general, very shy about appearing near the nest or attracting attention to it.

Last year I found three spotted eggs in a nest loosely built among the leaves of the dogwood limbs. When I had seen the father carrying a stick in his mouth, he dropped it and looked as uneasy as a boy who had just been caught with his pockets full of stolen apples, This year the nest was twenty feet down the hill from the old home. They came nearer the ground and placed the thin framework of their nest between the two upright forks of an arrow-wood bush. We had never bothered them very much with the camera, but when they put their home right down within four and a half feet of the ground, it looked to me as if they wanted their pictures taken. It was too good a chance for us to miss. The ferns grew almost as high as the nest, and it was a fine place to hide the camera so as to focus it on the home.

When I waded through the ferns and pushed aside the bushes, the nest was brimful. Above the rim, I could see the tiny plumes of white down wavering in a breath of air that I couldn't feel. I stole up and looked in. The three bantlings were sound asleep. Neither parent happened to be near, so I crawled back and hid well down in the bushes twelve feet away. The father came in as silently as a shadow and rested on the nest edge. He was dressed like a prince, with a jet-black hat, black wings Crossed with bars of white, and the rich, red-brown of his vest shading into lemon-yellow toward his tail. He crammed something in each wide-opened mouth, stretched at the end of a wiggling, quivering neck. The mother followed without a word and sat looking about. She treated each bobbing head in the same way. Then, with head cocked on the side, she examined each baby, turning him gently with her bill, and looked carefully to the needs of all three before departing.

The male stayed near the nest. When I arose and stood beside the arrow-wood he was scared. "Quit! Quit!" he cried, in a high, frightened tone, and when I didn't he let out a screech of alarm that brought his wife in a hurry. Any one would have thought I was thirsting for the lifeblood of those nestlings. She was followed by a pair of robins, a yellow warbler and a flycatcher, all anxious to take a hand in the owl-ousting if, indeed, an owl was near. I have often noticed that all the feathered neighbors ot a locality will flock at such a cry of alarm. The robins are always the loudest and noisiest in their threats, and are the first to respond to a bird emergency call.

The weather was warm and it seemed to me the young grosbeaks grew almost fast enough to rival a toadstool. Sunshine makes a big difference. These little fellows got plenty to eat, and were where the sun filtered through the leaves and kept them warm. The young thrushes across the gully were in a dark spot. They got as much food, but they rarely got a glint of the sun. They didn't grow as much in a week as the grosbeak babies did in three days.

I loved to sit and watch the brilliant father. He perched at the very top of the fir and stretched his wings till you could see their lemon lining. He preened his black tail to show the hidden spots of white. Of course, he knew his clothes were made for show. It was the song of motion just to see him drop from the fir to the bushes below. What roundelays he whistled: "Whit-te-o! Whitte-o! Reet!" Early in the morning he showed the quality of his singing. Later in the day it often lost finish. The tones sounded hard to get out or as if he were practising; just running over the notes of an air that hung dim in his memory. But it was pleasing to hear him practise; the atmosphere was too lazy for perfect execution. He knew he could pipe a tune to catch the ear, but he had to sit on the tree-top, as if he were afraid some one would catch the secret of his art if he sang lower down. Perhaps he was vain, but I have watched him when he seemed to whistle as unconsciously as I breathed.

The morning of July 6th the three young birds left the nest, following their parents out into the limbs of the arrow-wood. They were not able to fly more than a few feet, but they knew how to perch and call for food. I never heard a more enticing dinner-song, such a sweet, musical "tour-a-lee."

Mother Grosbeak feeding young

Male Grosbeak feeding young

The triplets were slightly different in size and strength. The eldest knew the note of alarm, and two or three times when he got real hungry I heard him utter a shriek that brought papa and mamma in a hurry to get there before he was clear dead. Then he flapped his wings and teased for a morsel. The minute his appetite was satisfied he always took a nap. There was no worry on his mind as to where the next bite was coming from. He just contracted into a fluffy ball, and he didn't pause a second on the border-land; it was so simple; his lids closed and it was done. He slept soundly, too, for I patted his feathers and he didn't wake. But at the flutter of wings he awoke as suddenly as he dropped asleep.

The parents fed their bantlings as much on berries as on worms and insects. Once I saw the father distribute a whole mouthful of green measuring-worms. The next time he had visited a garden down the hillside, for he brought one raspberry in his bill and coughed up three more. Both parents soon got over their mad anxiety every time I looked at their birdlings. In fact, they soon seemed willing enough for me to share the bits from my own lunch, for the youngsters were very fond of pieces of cherry taken from a small stick, twirled in the air above them.

We spent the next two days watching and photographing, but it took all the third forenoon to find the three bantlings. The mother had enticed one down the slope to the hazel bush near the creek. I watched her for two hours before I heard the soft tour-a-lee of the youngster. He perched on my finger and I brought him back to the nest. Another we found down in the thimbleberry bushes, which, with the third up in the maple sapling over the nest, seemed to be in the keeping of the father.

Nature has given the grosbeak a large and powerful bill to crack seeds and hard kernels, but it seemed to me this would be rather an inconvenience when it came to feeding children. If it was, the parents did not show it. The mother always cocked her head to one side so that her baby could easily grasp the morsel, and it was all so quickly done that only the camera's eye could catch the way she did it. She slipped her bill clear into the youngster's mouth, and he took the bite as hurriedly as if he were afraid the mother would change her mind and give it to the next baby.

After watching the grosbeak family all day, we put the children in a little isolated clump of bushes, late in the afternoon, and when we paid our visit early the next morning they were still there, but perched well up in the top limbs. We had at last reached almost a "bird-in-the-hand" acquaintance with the parents. We could watch them at close range and they didn't seem to care a snap. The mother wore a plain-colored dress in comparison with her husband's almost gaudy suit. When he turned his head he showed a black silk hat that was enough to distinguish any bird, but I, for my part, would hardly have called his wife Mrs. Black-headed Grosbeak had I not known they were married.

I have watched a good many bird families, but I never saw the work divided as it seemed to be in the grosbeak household. The first day I stayed about the nest I noticed that the father was feeding the children almost entirely, and whenever he brought a mouthful he hardly knew which one to feed first. The mother fed about once an hour, while he fed every ten or fifteen minutes. This seemed rather contrary to my understanding of bird ways. Generally the male is wilder than his wife and she has to take the responsibility of the home. The next day I watched at the nest conditions were the same, but I was surprised to see that the parental duties were just reversed. The mother was going and coming continually with food, while the father sat about in the tree-tops, sang and preened his feathers leisurely, only taking the trouble to hunt up one mouthful for his bairns to every sixth or seventh the mother brought. To my surprise the third day I found the father was the busy bird again. Out of eighteen plates exposed that day on the grosbeak family I got only five snaps at the mother, and three of these were poor ones. The fourth day I watched, the mother seemed to have charge of the feeding again, but she spent most of her time trying to coax the bantlings to follow her off into the bushes. It was hardly the father's day for getting the meals, but, on the whole, he fed almost as much as the mother, otherwise the youngsters would not have received their daily allowance. I have watched at some nests where the young were cared for almost entirely by the mother, and I have seen others where those duties were taken up largely by the father. Many times I have seen both parents work side by side in rearing a family, but the grosbeak seemed to have a way of dividing duties equally and alternating with days of rest and labor.

The grosbeak family stayed about the thicket for over two weeks. I saw the babies when they were almost full-grown birds and watched them follow their parents about. They were able to find bugs and feed themselves, but each child knew it was easier to be fed than to go about looking under every twig and leaf. One juvenile flew up to the limb beside his father, quivering his wings and begging for a bite. His father straightened back and looked at him with an air of inquiry, "Why don't you hunt for yourself?" The little fellow turned his back as if in shame, but he kept on crying. The father flew into the next tree; the little beggar followed and squatted right beside him as if he half expected a trouncing. I looked to see him get it. The father turned and fed him. He couldn't resist. In some ways children are the same, and bird papas are, perhaps, a good deal like human papas.


The Grosbeak is a seed-eater and is related to the sparrow family. It is about eight inches in length and has the build of a sparrow, but it is an abnormal sparrow, because of its immensely thickened bill. The Grosbeak is a good singer, with a finely colored dress.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Zamelodia ludoviciana): Male, head and upper parts, black, except for white rump and white markings on wings and tail; breast and under wings, rosy red; bill, white. Female, brownish color, no rosy tint on breast; yellow under wings; heavy brown bill. Found in eastern United States and southern Canada, from the first of May till the middle of September. Nest in bushes and low trees, thin and saucer-shaped, made of wiry roots. Eggs, from three to five, dull green with dark brown spots and specks.

Black-headed Grosbeak (Zamelodia melanocephala): Male, upper parts black with brown collar and brown on rump; two white wing-bars; throat and under parts, rich orange-brown, changing to lemon-yellow on belly and under wings. Female, plain brown color, sides streaked; collar and wing-bars, dull white; yellowish on belly and under wings. Inhabits western United States. Nest and eggs similar to Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

Nest of eggs of Black-headed Grosbeak

Male Grosbeak at nest

Grosbeak babies

Book Chapter Logo Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.