Evening Grosbeaks Return


(This 1132nd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on December 2, 2012.)


Evening Grosbeaks at a suburban feeder

photo by Bob Dadswell


A reader contacted me recently to ask about an unusual goldfinch visiting his bird feeder. "Do any goldfinches get extra large?" he asked.


What he thought was a bigger-than-usual goldfinch I am certain was in reality an evening grosbeak. This species does have the yellow and black appearance of a goldfinch, but it is much larger, almost twice the goldfinch's length and four times its weight. And the evening grosbeak is not just bigger, it is a robust bird with an especially thick bill for seed cracking. Another adjective appropriately applied is plump.


As I write this, reports are coming in from across the region of these birds appearing at feeders and birders are excited to have them visit. The reason: for almost thirty years they have been rare winter visitors here.


For several decades before that evening grosbeaks were rather common birds at bird feeders in winter. And after a few days of their visits, birders often were ready to shoo them away. They consume amazing amounts of sunflower seeds at feeders and they clean them out in a matter of minutes. When they are available in nearby woodlots, the seeds of the ash-leafed maple or boxelder serve as an alternate food source.


The longer-term history of this species in the east is interesting. Originally a bird of the western United States and Canada, the species slowly spread eastward, the first in the eastern Great Lakes region appearing in Toronto in 1854. Until the winter of 1889-90, however, it was reported as "almost unknown in the East." That winter there was a significant eastward movement and the species was even recorded on the Atlantic coast.


Although evening grosbeaks breed south into the forests of western states and even into Mexico, in the east they mostly nest in Canada and in the High Peaks area of the Adirondacks. Exceptions: on the 2000-2005 state breeding bird survey individual nests were found in Wyoming and Chautauqua Counties.


Almost exclusively, however, evening grosbeaks appear here in winter and then not regularly. During the years from the 1950s through the early 1980s, they were common winter birds and during migration flocks of up to two thousand were occasionally recorded. But then their numbers dropped off and they became rare here. For example, on May Counts that cover all of the Niagara Frontier the average number of evening grosbeaks recorded each year in the 1970s was 127; the same number for the early 2000s was 5.


I have also recently found them less common on their breeding grounds. After the mid-'80s I rarely saw them when climbing in the Adirondacks or while on canoe trips in the Minnesota Boundary Waters.


These birds are well worth watching as, despite their heavy bills, they are very adept at feeding. Here are some remarks about the care they take in handling seeds that I found in Bent's life history: "In feeding on the maple seed keys, the bird snips off the pod at the basal end, manipulates the winged portion between the mandibles to [separate] the seeds from their compartments, swallows [the seed] and allows the winged pod to flutter to the ground." "It was apparent that the birds had bitten directly over the kernel itself at a point rather nearer the wing than the kernel. But, although by this incision the kernel was expressed, it was never severed and allowed to fall with the wing, as would have been the case had the beak been closed and bite completed. All this, although the process involved the nicest precision, was accomplished with great rapidity, within a second or two." "They [also] eat snow, scooping it up and swallowing it in large quantities after feeding on seeds." If you do have these birds visit your feeder, you should watch this process as it applies to your sunflower seeds.


Evening grosbeaks are not the only uncommon birds retreating to this region this fall. The early predictions of a good winter for finch incursives are being borne out. Good numbers of redpolls, white-winged and red crossbills, pine siskins and pine grosbeaks are being recorded. Ornithologists disagree about the causes of these unusual years: some say lack of food in the north; others a population excess.-- Gerry Rising