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Walk Softly – Evening Grosbeaks

When I was young, there was a different mix of birds around. Today, some new ones have shown up, while some others sadly have simply disappeared over time. One of the birds I cherished as a youth was primarily a winter visitor, who occasionally stayed to breed. Then one day, they were just gone. Essentially, they disappeared for almost two decades, from much of their former eastern range. I am speaking about the Evening Grosbeak, a nomadic species which ranges across northern and central North America, as far south as Mexico.

Their original ‘invasion’ of the eastern forests appears to be linked to the introduction of ornamental box elder to eastern North America in the 1920s. Much of their success also relied on the Spruce Budworm as a primary food source. It was a common pest in the 1970s, and it provided ample and reliable food for them. However, modern forestry practices focus on the eradication of pests rather than management. As a result, the budworm, the Evening Grosbeak relied on, was essentially gone, and the grosbeaks, therefore, stayed in western North America, where food was abundant.

Flash forward to this winter, and they seem to be back across much of Ontario and Quebec. What a welcome relief to see these noisy birds clamour over sunflower seeds at our feeders.

The males are striking combinations of yellow, black and white, while the females sport similar patterns but in more subdued hues. Their raucous calls are usually heard long before they are seen. Unlike many other species, they don’t really have a song but rather have a range of simple call notes. Since they are nomadic, and the males and females travel together, it may not be as necessary to sing from a perch to attract a mate, as they are always with you!

Nests are built in coniferous trees, with the female doing most of the nest construction. She builds a flimsy, saucer-shaped nest of small twigs and roots lined with grasses, fine rootlets, lichens and pine needles. Two to five eggs are laid, and in bumper years, two broods can be raised. The eggs are incubated for about two weeks, and two weeks later, the young fledge and forage as part of the family group.

Throughout this part of their life, insects, such as caterpillars and aphids, form much of their diet. These are supplemented with seeds and fruits, such as box elder, ash, cherry, crab-apple, hawthorn, juniper and pine. Their feeding style is interesting, as they manipulate fleshy fruits in their bills, such as cherries, to remove the skin and flesh, before cracking and swallowing the seed.

What does the future hold? Evening Grosbeak's populations have dropped by an estimated 74 percent between 1966 and 2019. Recent data found, Evening Grosbeaks were reported at only half the number of sites as in the past, and flock sizes were down by 27 percent, between the 1980s and the 2000s. Recent declines may be due to logging and other development in the boreal forests of northern North America. Disease outbreaks, such as salmonella, West Nile Disease and House Finch disease (mycoplasmal conjunctivitis) along with reduced numbers of spruce budworm and other forest insects, have negatively impacted them. As climate change alters the landscape, over the next century, Balsam Fir is expected to recede from eastern North America, and Evening Grosbeaks may disappear completely from this region.

On a happier note, the oldest recorded Evening Grosbeak, when he was found in New Brunswick in 1974, was a male, which was at least 16 years and three months old, having been banded in Connecticut in 1959!

Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff online on LinkedIn and Facebook.

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