March Quiz: Answer

To refresh your memory, here is the photo from March’s Bird Quiz. It was taken in Colorado during the month of March. Don’t read any further if you want one last chance to identify this bird.

3 March_StateForestSP-CO_LAH_3214

Are you a sexist birder?

That may seem like a strange question. In this case, I’m not referring to the sexism that may or may not exist among birders. (I’ve read articles on both sides of that loaded question.) Rather, I’m talking about the birds themselves.

Mallards @LakePueblo 20090523 LAH 126r-001I’ve noticed that, for the most part, I recognize male birds much more easily than female birds. Male Mallards are obvious. Female Mallards (and most other ducks) are tricky. Male warblers stick in my brain, but not their mates. While there are plenty of bird species in which the sexes are identical, or nearly so, there are many more cases where the males are brightly, uniquely, colored and the ladies are—how can I put this nicely?—just plain drab!

Even worse are the times where the sexes are so different from one another that early ornithologists thought they were dealing with completely different species!

It’s pretty obvious that the female birds are drab on purpose. They’re stuck sitting on a nest, protecting their offspring, and they can’t go running off every time a predator shows up. It’s much better to avoid being noticed in the first place. Males, on the other hand, want to attract the females’ attention, so they tend to be flashy.

What does all this have to do with the bird pictured above? Plenty, as you’ll see in a moment.

3 Pine Grosbeak_StateForestSP-CO_LAH_6496-009What kind of bird is this? Here’s another photo, which shows more of the wing, and a side view of the beak.

The large, triangular beak says “seed eater,” making me think of finches, sparrows, and other birds mostly found at the rear of the field guide. In fact, the beak is noticeably out of proportion to the rest of the bird. Hmmm.

It has some other easy-to-spot field marks. The top of the head is yellow. The wing might have a white bar (it’s a bit hard to tell from this angle, but this is how I first saw the bird.) It’s small to medium in size, as compared to the needles on the conifer. (If we knew what kind of tree that was, and how long its needles are, it would be easier to figure out how big the bird is.) The chest and underside of the bird is silvery-gray, the tail is squared off (as opposed to being long and tapering). Let’s see where that gets us.

I hate to spend lots of time flipping through a field guide, but sometimes that’s the only way to ID a new bird. The triangular beak, squared tail, and relatively small size is still whispering “finch” in my head, so I’ll start in the rear with the finches and work my way forward if nothing pops out at me.

3 Pine Grosbeaks_StateForestSP-CO_LAH_6496-008Flipping through the finches, I come to the Pine Grosbeak. The beak looks right, even down to the little overlap at the tip (reminiscent of a crossbill). It has a prominent pair of white wing bars (I can’t tell much from my photo, but that bird could have more than one bar). I’m using a Sibley guide, which clearly shows the silvery undersides on the female. And there’s the yellow head. Yup, it’s a female Pine Grosbeak.

When I finally spotted my first Pine Grosbeak, I didn’t recognize the bird. I had “red” in my mind, not yellow. But it’s only the male (and some immature females) who are red. This was a good lesson to me that I need to study the appearance of both sexes, even if the females are harder to learn.

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