Many people’s first reaction on seeing an orange-and-black bird is that it must be an oriole; this, however, is not the case. We have another orange-and-black bird in the foothills that is not an oriole. It’s short thick finch bill and dull burnt orange color will immediately rule out an oriole.
Orioles have a brilliant yellow-orange color and a thin, long beak like other members of the blackbird family. The black-headed grosbeak is dark burnt orange, black and white.
The black-headed grosbeak is closely related to the rose-breasted grosbeak, and the females of the two species are so similar that they are often difficult to tell apart. “Sibley’s Guide to Birds” has good illustrations of these two birds in female and immature plumage.
Bailey lists the black-headed grosbeak as “common summer resident on the plains and in low valleys throughout (Colorado).” However, I have never found them to be that abundant. One pair has nested every year in the valley of Little Cub Creek below my house. They are late migrants and usually arrive on May 5 or a day or two later if we have foul weather.
They are very fond of sunflower seeds and come immediately to the feeder upon arrival to refuel after their long journey. I have seen them at the feeder several times this spring but have not as yet seen any young. They usually bring their young to the feeders as soon as they leave the nest. The young are brown and buffy light-striped where the rose-breasted grosbeaks are whiter.
These two birds are so much alike that they sometimes interbreed. The resulting crossbreeds are usually a discernible mix of the two species. I saw one such bird several years ago at Red Rocks Park during spring migration. It had a mixture of the coloring of both species but had a deep triangular breast patch of the rose-breasted grosbeak, but it was not rose colored — it was a deep burnt orange.
These birds seem to be fairly common, with a pair in prairie fencerows or windbreaks, and in foothill valleys up to about 7,000 feet. The pair that nests near me is probably close to 7,000 feet, but it does not seem comfortable in the evergreen forests and stays mostly in the valley, where there are aspen, willows and cottonwoods.
The adults teach the young about feeders and sunflower seeds by bringing them up to my feeders. They act like school children just let out of school when they first arrive at the feeder. There is much excitement and short “wheeo, wheeo, wheeo” calls, which apparently are a big discussion on how good sunflower seeds are.
Late to arrive, they also tend to leave early, as soon as the young are able to fly as well.
Laura Mehmert tells me she has two cedar waxwings coming to her feeder. They nest in small numbers every year along Bear Creek, for I have seen them at Chatfield and Lair O’ the Bear, as well as here in Evergreen near the creek. Several years ago, I banded two young cedar waxwings at Lair O’ the Bear. The waxwings are sleek, beautiful birds. It is always a pleasure to see them.
Several people have phoned me recently, asking why birds seem to be so scarce. I can only guess it is because most of them are nesting now and have young to feed. Instead of having a whole flock of pygmy nuthatches at my feeder, they are now all paired and come to the feeder two at a time. Or if they have eggs, they may take turns incubating them and come one at a time.
By summer’s end, we reach the time of year when bird populations are at their highest. Nesting adults and their young are about, and if they have been lucky, each pair has raised two or three young. Winter, fall and spring migration will take its toll, and the numbers will once more be low. It is a good year if an adult pair can replace themselves. It is a great year if you can actually count an increase in a species.