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Evening Grosbeak

Coccothraustes vespertinus:

A much-loved and boldly-marked finch of the North Woods and mountain forests. Its dramatic dips and booms in population are an endless source of speculation. They were abundant at backyard bird feeders across the northern U.S.  in the 70s and 80s but have declined dramatically.

Description

Stunning black and yellow finch of the boreal forest and mountain conifers. Loud and gregarious. Big-headed and big billed.

Length

8 inches (Cardinal-sized)

Other Names

Coccothraustes vespertinus (Scientific), gros-bec errant (French Canadian)

Hot Spots

Winter—Feeders in Sax-Zim Bog and around Ely, Minnesota.

Early Spring—Golden Gate Canyon State Park in Colorado.

Summer—Moraine Park Campground in Rocky Mountain National Park; Cascades near Leavenworth, Washington.

Description & ID Tips

Gros in French means “large,” so grosbeak is an appropriate name for this heavy-billed finch. Yellow, black and white male is unmistakable, and female shows the same color scheme but in paler shades. I especially like how the black on the head transitions into yellow on the belly. Yellow “eyebrows” on the male look more like “Viking horns” to me. Plumage does not change seasonally. In flight their large white wing patches flash as they zip overhead. Large-headed and short-tailed.

Song and Calls

A songbird that doesn’t regularly sing. Loud ringing and trilly deer and a sharp tew are call notes, and seem to take care of much of their communication needs.

Habitat

Boreal and other coniferous forests across North America.

Range

Breeding—Southeast corner of the Yukon across the boreal forests of Canada to northern New England, south to northern Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Rocky Mountains, Cascades, Sierra Nevadas and even to mountains of Mexico.

Winter—Same as breeding range except in years of major irruption when they may move south into the central and southern U.S.

Nest

Tree-nester that places its flimsy nest rather high up, from 20 to 60 feet in a coniferous tree, often at a level between 60 and 80 percent of the tree’s height. Loosely built of sticks and woven with moss and lichens into an oval flattened nest that is lined with rootlets, hair and fibers. So spare that sometimes the eggs can be seen through the bottom of the nest! Inconspicuous during the breeding season so very few nests are actually located. Three to four eggs, sometimes two or five.

Food

Box Elder seeds seem to be a favorite wild food, as do the keys of other maples species. Also seeks out seeds of sumac, ash, elm and pines, flowers of birch and maple, berries of crabapple, Russian olive, hawthorn and juniper. Of course, we usually see winter birds gorging on black oil sunflower seeds at bird feeders. Buds of maple, elm, oak, aspen, willow and cherry. In summer, insects are relished, especially the easily captured Spruce Budworms (see sidebar on page 25).

Budworm Boon

Prior to the 1850s, Evening Grosbeaks were unknown east of the western Great Lakes. One theory on how they exploded to the Northeast U.S. and Canada during the 1900s is tied to massive outbreaks of Eastern Spruce Budworm (Choristoneura fumiferana). While the insect is the bane of Balsam Fir and spruce forests, it is a boon to these black-and-yellow finches who devour them by the millions. Abundant food allowed them to lay more eggs, raise more young. Others credit plantings of Box Elder across the East; Its seeds are a grosbeak favorite.

Paushkundamo

Evening Grosbeaks were first described in 1825 by the great

naturalist William Cooper (think “Cooper’s Hawk”) from a specimen sent to him by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (The first white person to see the source of the Mississippi River). It was shot by a native boy on the evening of April 7, 1823 near Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan Territory and labeled Paushkundamo, an Ojibwa word meaning “berry-breaker.” He also noted that the species is “said to be common about the Head of Lake Superior at Fond du Lac” (present day Duluth, Minnesota and only a few miles from my home!)

A few months later, along Minnesota’s Savanna River, Major Delafield also encountered this new bird. His twilight observation   probably helped give this beautiful bird its misbegotten common name (Evening) and Latin name (vespertinus). “It’s mournful cry about the hour of my encamping (which was at sunset) had before attracted my attention…[and] my inference was…that this bird dwells in such dark retreats and leaves them at the approach of night.”

Why Such a Heavy Beak?

Obviously Evening Grosbeaks don’t need their massive bill for feeding on the soft and gooey spruce budworm caterpillars that they love so much. So why the big bill? The answer is for seed crushing. Unlike waxwings, who love the fleshy pulp of berries, these grosbeaks actually discard the pulp and skin and keep the seed. It is then positioned just right in the beak and upwards of 60-125 lbs. of force is brought down upon the seed to crack it. One observer watching an Evening Grosbeak eating wild cherries could hear the “pop” of a breaking pit 100 feet away! This skill comes in handy when feeding on the extremely hard cones of Bald Cypress in South Carolina and Florida. The now extinct Carolina Parakeet was a master at getting at the Cypress seeds, but very few other animals can.

Nature Notes

Oldest recorded free-flying wild Evening Grosbeak was an amazing 15 years and 3 months!

In spring they may snap off a maple twig knowing that doing so will create a sweet “spigot” of dripping maple sap allowing them a refreshing drink.

Like the crossbills, Evening Grosbeaks have a “salt tooth,” craving the mineral to the point of foraging near and under cars dripping with road-salt-soaked snow.

Of 17,000 Evening Grosbeaks banded in Pennsylvania over 14 years, 499 were recovered. Only 10 percent were returnees to Pennsylvania, while the other 90 percent had wandered across 17 states and four provinces!

[Text excerpted from Winter Finches & Friends of North America by Sparky Stensaas (Stone Ridge Press; 2015)]

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