Door to Nature: Evening Grosbeaks

Roy and I first met in late August of 1971 at The Ridges Sanctuary when a friend invited me to go on one of the guided hikes. In previous years I had only visited Door County in summer and this was my first hike at The Ridges. Roy and I began communicating and I journeyed back up a couple times in fall. Then he wanted me to see Door County in the winter so he asked me to come up for the New Year’s weekend. We became engaged on Jan. 1, 1972.

It was on that day I saw my first evening grosbeak. In fact there were more than 50 in the yard and on the backyard bird feeders of the Range Light residence that morning as we were eating breakfast. The snow level was deep, the birds were hungry and they feasted on sunflower seeds as rapidly as they could shell them with their strong razor-edged beaks.

The earliest arrival date for these black and yellow beauties, prior to 1972, was during the first week of November. I remember the morning of Friday, Oct. 13, 1972. Roy had gone off to teach at Southern Door School and I was working in the kitchen. The feeders were quiet; then, all of a sudden, a dozen evening grosbeaks descended onto the large wooden platform and began consuming sunflower seeds. Later that day there were nearly 100 grosbeaks in the trees, feeders and on the ground.

My good friend Beth texted me a few weeks ago saying there were several evening grosbeaks on her feeder a mile west of Newport Park. This was a life bird for her. My friend Melody, another great birder on Washington Island, reported the first evening grosbeaks at her feeders on Oct. 29. Then, on Nov. 14 she noticed a pine grosbeak among the evening grosbeaks.

Roy learned, while banding birds, that the evening grosbeak has the strongest and sharpest beak and can slice into a finger very easily. Here is a female held by Roy.

Ryan Brady is an excellent birder and wildlife photographer who works for the Wisconsin DNR in Ashland and emailed a map showing where evening grosbeaks were sighted during the winter of 2017 and where they have been reported so far this fall. It is probable that more will be moving further south into Wisconsin this upcoming season due to a lack of seeds on their favorite trees in Canada.

Roy began being a federally licensed bird bander in 1962. On Sunday, Oct. 15, 1972, he set up his tall mist nets in front of the conifer trees and behind the large platform feeder. Very soon he had captured three female evening grosbeaks, banded and photographed them. Soon several males were also fitted with the lightweight aluminum numbered bands.

In summer he would capture and band the rose-breasted grosbeaks and thought what strong biters they were. Well, after handling a few male evening grosbeaks he knew which ones took the prize for worst finger biters! It was the evening grosbeak, hands down; or maybe fingers down!

The record for the oldest evening grosbeak is a male that was banded in 1959 in Connecticut. It was recaptured in New Brunswick, Canada, in 1974 and was determined to be 16 years and 3 months old.

A list of some of the grosbeaks favorite foods includes cherries. Did you ever try to break a cherry pit with your teeth? The evening grosbeaks, according to some literature, can crush them easily! We suspect they are more interested in consuming the pit rather than the fruit.

This bird was sometimes called the English parrot. The scientific name, Hesperiphona vespertina, is used by the International Ornithologists Union and refers to “evening singer.” Now most U.S. field guides use the name, Coccothraustes vespertinus, which is what the AOU (American Ornithologists Union) prefers. Part of the AOU genus name, “thraustes” is from the Greek meaning “crusher.”

The evening grosbeaks were uncommon in the eastern part of America up to 1890. As more ornamental trees, especially the box elders (Acer negundo), also known as ash-leaved maple or Manitoba maple were planted, the birds were being seen as far south as New York City by 1911. One theory is that their gradual eastward movement happened after these trees became abundant. This member of the maple genus produces winged seeds that are relished by the gluttonous grosbeaks.

The evening grosbeaks were more common in the west nesting high in the mountains. The eastern species prefer to nest in spruce trees and other conifers. We know them as great consumers of sunflower seeds but in summer they eat many insects, especially the spruce budworm. Their ability to find these small tree-damaging larvae often causes large breeding populations in a forest of the affected trees.

I remember a trip we took to Whitefish Point in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula along the south shore of Lake Superior one July. We hiked along a few trails and heard and then saw evening grosbeaks. Only once did Roy ever find one in summer in Door County. It was seen on July 23, 1971, near the Mud Lake area of dense conifers.

Being late nesters they were often still seen at our Range Light feeders in May. One picture Roy snapped showed a few evening grosbeaks, a rose-breasted grosbeak and a Baltimore oriole all feeding together on the large platform feeder.

Grosbeaks are members of the finch family, which also includes cardinals, house and purple finches, indigo buntings and goldfinches. They are tree-dwellers of the forest or edges, sing during flight, are highly sociable, do not exhibit strong migratory tendencies, move southward irregularly in winter and travel in well-knit flocks.

Years ago a study was done in Canada where the evening grosbeaks bred in large numbers. The next year DDT was sprayed by the foresters to eliminate the spruce budworms and few grosbeaks were found. It is feared that overuse of insecticides in many parts of the world is decreasing many bird populations by eliminating the food they need.

Rejoice in seeing evening grosbeaks at your feeders and keep them supplied with lots of sunflower seeds. Make a large platform feeder, which will attract many of the finch family members. Some birds up there will like you!

The annual Sturgeon Bay Christmas bird count is Saturday, Dec. 15, and the Southern Door (Brussels) count is Dec. 16. More people are needed to count birds in their yards and at their feeders. If you’d like to help with either count, contact Charlotte Lukes at [email protected] or 920.823.2478.

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