A Young Blue Grosbeak Singing

In a patch of small pines and oaks on the edge of a clearing this morning, a Blue Grosbeak flitted from branch to branch, singing short pieces of its richly warbled song. It looked and sounded familiar – the large peaked head, the very large silver, conical beak and longish tail – and this is an area where Blue Grosbeaks have often nested in previous years. But something about this one was different.

Most notably, it wasn’t blue at all – certainly not the deep ink-blue of a Grosbeak with rust-orange wingbars – or even the dark gray-blue that Grosbeaks can appear to be in certain light. This one was brown. A pale brown on the belly, with darker brown on wings and head, similar to a Blue Grosbeak female – but female Grosbeaks do not sing.

I think this was probably a first-summer or sub-adult male, not yet in the full blue plumage of a mature male. There probably was some blue in the plumage that I couldn’t see because of the way it stayed mostly in the shadows of the leaves.

It seemed interesting to me that this young male was not singing the way a mature Grosbeak usually would – perched up in a treetop or top of a bush or on a wire, out in the open, singing its song repeatedly and boldly. Instead, it sang as it moved around in the trees and shrubs from place to place, staying low and screened among the needles and leaves of small trees. And the song itself was slightly different, a more casual, off and on series of fluent but less emphatic warbled phrases, fragments of the full song, and the effect was strangely more musical.

After several minutes in these trees, the Grosbeak flew across the road into low shrubs and grassy weeds along the edge of the old field, and from there began to give its hard, metallic chink call, several times. Then it flew again, into some large old oaks with privet and other shrubs around them, so I could no longer see it, but I continued to hear the chink calls.

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