ANIMALS ARE moving around for various reasons — coming out of hibernation, traveling to new territories, mating or, in the case of turtles, laying eggs in the perfect soft warm sand on the sides of roads. Spring is the season of road carnage. It is almost unbearable to drive around.
I had reason to make a trip northwest of Worcester, Mass., recently. I saw lots of dead animals in and alongside the roadways, both highways and back roads. It seemed like there was a dead turkey every five miles on the highway. The males wander around by themselves a lot in the spring looking for mates. Turkeys also get hit by cars because drivers can never quite be sure when the last one has come out of the woods to cross.
Opossums, playing their vitally important role as scavengers, often get hit eating other animals that have been hit. And they are not very fast so simply getting from one side of the road to the other is fraught with being a victim. The only one I saw that potentially might have had babies still alive in the pouch (a sad fact about roadkill opossums) was in the middle of a four-lane highway that was too dangerous to stop on. The rest I’ve seen this spring were too flattened for babies to have survived. So sad.
I also saw, on that one trip, a deer, a fox, at least one raccoon perhaps more, and several things flattened beyond recognition. But the strangest thing was the Waze app telling me “Use caution, roadkill ahead!” Geez. I guess other drivers report it to Waze and everyone then gets alerted. It just seemed odd.
I also witnessed, on the Spaulding Turnpike, an immature bald eagle fly down and sitting on the median beside a dead animal in the middle of the southbound lanes. I hope he went to find a snack elsewhere. Hawks also get hit by cars as they fly low across the road.
Soon we will need to watch when deer cross to make sure a fawn — or two or even three — isn’t lingering along behind. It all reminds me of the Facebook posting that goes around every few months showing a photo of a deer in the middle of a country road with the message: “The deer isn’t crossing the road, the road is crossing the forest.” Exactly.
But I intended this column to cover a very much alive bird sighting I was excited about in the last few days. I was looking out the kitchen window, morning coffee in hand, and saw a bird on top of the bird feeder pole. It was brown and stripey and could have been a sparrow. But it was too big overall and its beak was big and something about it was familiar. Then it came to me: It was a female rose-breasted grosbeak. I was so excited! I have seen them visit before, but only every few years.
Where there is a female rose-breasted grosbeak, there is likely a male. While the females are quite lovely, male rose-breasted grosbeaks are simply stunning. Their blackest of black heads, black-and-white striped wing patterns, white breast/belly and the V-shaped splash of brilliant red from the chin to a point at chest level is just remarkable. And there he was, in the oak tree, brilliant against the unfolding green leaves aglow in the rising sun. He came to the feeder, too. And then not long after, two males and a female were at the feeder. They hung around all day.
Although I often attribute the black-and-white warbler as really launching my bird interest having found it so exciting to identify it when I was in high school, the rose-breasted grosbeak is probably the true reason I have been a birdwatcher throughout my life. Pairs would come to the feeders in our backyard growing up in Kittery Point, Maine. They would be joined by Baltimore orioles, goldfinches, cardinals, the occasional evening grosbeak — all very striking birds. But it was the uniquely patterned rose-breasted grosbeak that I found captivating. How could a bird look so striking?
As for taxonomy, the rose-breasted grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) is a member of the “New World nine-primaried oscines”— so-designated by the authority of North American bird names, the check-list committee of the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) — called Cardinalidae which, logically, includes the cardinal as well as grosbeaks and buntings.
Where there is a female and two males of a bird species, one can only assume some mating and nesting must be going on. I doubt I will be able to locate the nest, but according to my Peterson’s “Field Guide to Bird’s Nests” (Harrison), the rose-breasted grosbeak lays an average of four brown, splotched, oval eggs in a somewhat flimsy nest in the fork of a deciduous tree or shrub. Both male and female incubate for around two weeks. They typically have just one brood.
Peterson’s also noted that “both birds sing while incubating.” And now I love them even more.