Sunday, October 30, 2011

How the Rose-Breasted Grosbeak Got His Chest

Once upon a time, long before you or I were born, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak wasn’t called that. Back then, Giorsbeaks’ chests were snowy white. And Grosbeaks were very proud of their looks.

At that time, there was one particular Grosbeak who loved two things: (1) berries and (2) himself. All the other birds said his egotistic, gluttonous ways would eventually come back to bite him in the vent.

One October day, this Grosbeak was feeling both unusually hungry and unusually proud of himself. He had planned his southward journey to go through the verdant land now known as Florida, which he knew was filled with berries in October – bright red magnolia berries, fat clusters of tiny, lavender-colored beauty berries, and big, juicy purple pokeberries. The very thought of them made him swoon, and he was very pleased with his itinerary.

He was pleased with himself for another reason, too: while the other Grosbeaks changed into modest brown plumage for their trip, he had decided to keep most of his snappy black-and-white spring feathers.

“You’re being an idiot,” the other Grosbeaks said. “That outfit’s too worn to make it all the way down south."

“What’s the point?” a disapproving Magnolia Warbler scolded. “Seriously. You’re going to be too busy eating and flying to check out any ladies with that getup of yours, and they'll be too busy to notice you.”

The Grosbeak didn’t listen. He know they were only saying that stuff because they were jealous.

That October day in Florida, things started even better than he expected. Almost immediately, he spotted shiny red clusters of ripe berries. Then he did what any discerning epicure would do when presented with nature’s bounty at its finest: he stuffed his face.

OMG those berries were amazing. Best of all, he hardly needed to move to gobble down one cluster after another, each more succulent than the next. Reddish juice dribbled down his snowy white breast, of which he was very proud, but he was too hungry to care.

“Look at you! You ought to be ashamed of yourself.” It was some Grosbeak he didn’t know, who was dressed in an old man’s brown-and-beige fall outfit. “Show a little class. Look at all that crap you’re dripping on yourself!”

“Yaah pal? Well check it out, I’VE got this bush full of berries and you don’t.”

“That’s because I’ve already had my share. And look at me, I managed to keep myself clean. Mark my words, kid, no gal’s gonna want to nest with a slob like you.”

Whatever, Gramps, the Grosbeak thought. He kept eating. When he was too full to move, he decided to preen himself – not because he cared what the old guy thought but because he wasn’t sleepy or hungry and couldn’t think of anything else to do. Yeah, and it had been several hours since he’d cleaned himself. Okay, maybe more than that.

This was weird. No matter what he tried, the juice stains just wouldn’t come out. -- they were stuck to him like the black on his wings.

He panicked. He began to peck harder at his chest. Nothing. Still bright red, like a cowboy’s bandanna hanging in front of his breast. His beautifully pristine white breast was ruined, and it was all his own fault.

In South America, he made a point of hanging with birds who didn’t know him. But when it was time to go back north again, he know he’d have to face the music. Nesting season was approaching – how would he explain this to the girls?

The flight back to North America was the most depressing trip of his life. The breeding grounds were a playground of happy activity when he arrived. He saw a lot of familiar birds, but didn’t want to face any of them.

“Hey there!” It was the prettiest, fattest female Grosbeak he had ever seen. Great, she’s just here’s to taunt me, he thought.

“Did you just get here?” She was still talking to him,. “Mm, look at you! Pokeberries?” She was staring at his chest, cocking her head. “I like a man with a good appetite.” She hopped towards him. Startled, he hopped backwards.

“What’s the matter? Have you already got a mate?”

“N-no! I –“

“Well, if you don’t have anyone lined up, I’m here – unless you’d prefer me to spend the summer with him.” She turned her head towards a loudly singing voice nearby. “But I kind of like your looks.”

His heart felt as though it would burst. “I do, too,” he said.

Soon, word got out among the male Grosbeaks that the dork with the juice stuck on his chest had scored the hottest female Grosbeak in North America. Grateful and chastened, our Grosbeak built his pretty mate the biggest, nicest nest in the area. The other females eyed that nest and the happy couple from a distance, then gazed at their own dumpy nests and plain black-and-white mates and sighed. No, they’d say to their mates. Nothing’s wrong! What makes you think something’s wrong?

Miraculously, the guys got the hint. The next spring, when they returned to the nesting grounds, all the men were sporting handsome red bibs. And with all the time saved from not having to preen their breasts so much, they had the time and energy to build bigger nests and take better care of their chicks than ever before.

And that’s how the Rose-breasted Grosbeak got its chest.