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Tanagers and Black-Headed Grosbeaks Have Returned to Sun Valley
Marc Longley caught these two tanagers in the act of fighting.
Monday, May 27, 2024



Marc Longley recently managed to snap photographs of a couple of fighting tanagers and a black-headed grosbeak walking what resembles a tightrope.

It is, he says, a sure sign that spring has arrived.

Male black-headed grosbeaks help incubate eggs and raise the young.

The black-headed grosbeak, who looks like she’s walking a tightrope, is from a family of songbirds with large beaks. In fact, the name grosbeak is from the French word “grosbec,” where gros means large and bec means beak.

These loud songbirds use their beak like we do nutcrackers to crack tough seeds.

If you lived in the Great Plains, you might see beautiful rose-breasted grosbeaks and males with black and white wings and red and white underparts. But here in the West males are black and orange and females more understated.

These birds, which often nest near streams, move as far north as southern Canada in summer and as far south as central Mexico in winter. They eat seeds and insects and, occasionally, monarch butterflies, a species that’s usually poisonous to predators. Scientists say they feed on monarchs in Mexico, where they spend the winter, only every eight days, which apparently gives them time to eliminate any toxins.

To attract them to your yard set out some sunflower seeds—it’s like prime rib to these birds.

The tanagers are easy to spot in the Wood River Valley, thanks to their bright red head, yellow belly and black wings. This species makes its way farther north than other tanagers, often flying far up into northwestern Canada.

Their southernmost habitat is along the Mexican border. Their song is said to be like a robin with fluty phrases and pauses in between. They can catch insects in mid-air, and they often look for insects in flowers. They also love elderberries.

This time of the year you might find the males chasing females among the trees. After all, it’s springtime in the Rockies—time for courting.

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