A Lesson in Patience From the Rose-Breasted Grosbeak

It is a century now since Darwin gave us the first glimpse of the origin of the species. We know now what was unknown to all the preceding caravan of generations: that men are only fellow voyagers with other creatures in the odyssey of evolution. This new knowledge should have given us, by this time, a sense of kinship with fellow creatures; a wish to live and let live; a sense of wonder over the magnitude and duration of the biotic enterprise.

-Aldo Leopold

In the early morning, the bright, cheery song of the rose-breasted grosbeak rings through the canopy of tall maples and the few remaining aspens. Bits of clear blue sky are visible through the leaves. The morning sunlight streams through gaps in the canopy and washes everything it illuminates with a golden hue. I look and look but cannot spot him. His call continues to haunt me, seemingly from all sides. Is he moving along with me as I walk, or is his voice echoing around me? I am sure that it is a grosbeak and not a robin, though the songs are similar. Both have songs consisting of rising and falling passages of a lengthy, warbling song. The grosbeak adds a short “cheep” at the end of his repeating pattern of cheery, clear warbles.

            His nest and mate must be somewhere in the area. Grosbeaks are monogamous birds, though monogamy among song birds has a more liberal definition than that among (most) humans. Most song birds are considered socially monogamous and raise the chicks together, though they may mate with other mates. Therefore, the brood being raised by many monogamous pairs consists of many half siblings. This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint in regards to genetic diversity, but does not have the same romantic ring to it as true monogamy does to our human sensibilities. The more the male can mate with a variety of females, or frankly the more the female can have half-siblings, the more genetic diversity in a population and the fewer instances of in-breeding. Many socially monogamous pairs will only remain together for the season and then find new pairs the next season, thus also increasing genetic diversity of the overall population. This is not a conscious plan or choice on the part of the birds. Simply put, the birds with the genes to be socially monogamous spread their genes among more offspring. Many of those offspring will inherit those genes and behaviors, thus perpetuating the behavior in the population. Simple, but yet very efficient, elegant, and effective.

Each pair produces one to two broods per year, housed in a nest built of loosely intertwined twigs and coarse plant material lined with fine twigs, rootlets, or hair. The male is primarily in charge of site selection, and the female is the primary nest builder. The result of their work is a cup-shaped nest, five to fifteen feet above the ground. The song of the grosbeak this morning comes from higher up than a probable nesting site. If he was foraging for food, he would not be up so high: seeds, fruit, buds, a flower or two are all on or close to the ground.

Finally, through an opening, I see him sitting atop the tallest tree among the half-emerged spring leaves from exploding buds. A few days prior, the leaves were just in their infancy. A few days from now, I will not be able to spot him through the canopy of maple, aspen, and oak trees. He is perched well above the still-hidden nest site. Is he just singing for the joy of it? Maybe singing feels as good to him just as singing a low rumbling note feels good to me. Researchers have begun to explore the idea that singing releases endorphins, a pleasure hormone, or oxytocin, which relieves stress. Singing in a group might be meaningful to many because it begins with something so personal—a sound emanating from within, releasing pleasure hormones, but then combined with those of a chorus, creating a communal effect. Is our communal singing an evolutionary advancement to draw humans together in community? Could it have the same effect on avian brains as it does on humans?

His reason for singing is not to attract a mate. If he were, he would be crouching, spreading and drooping his wings, spreading his elevated tail to show off his color and health. Or he would be singing and waving his body and head in an erratic dance. He is not doing any of these things. He is just stoically perched on the tallest tree, soaking the white part of his breast with a golden hue from the morning’s sunrays. Maybe he, too, is just enjoying a beautiful spring morning.

Sometimes what we are looking for is right there if we look high enough. I pause and wonder how much I have missed when I have not had the patience to keep looking. Patience is such a valuable virtue. A little patience can reveal the joy in nature, and the joy in nature can make us perch atop the highest spot, bathe in the glory of the rising day and make our own song heard. I do not know if I have found a way to teach patience to others, or even to myself, but I suspect more time in the woods, staring up to the sky, searching for an elusive grosbeak cannot hurt. 

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