Evening Grosbeaks were irruptive winter birds in my previous home. In spite of the spike they created in the bird seed bill, they were welcome visitors. The male’s gaudy plumage, dominated by bright yellow, was a spark of color against the gray-brown winter landscape. The sudden appearance and equally sudden disappearance of the nomadic flock - the enthusiasm of their voracious appetites - the energy with which the flock seemed to do everything - all helped to chase the winter doldrums.
Evening Grosbeaks also empty the feeders in my Vermont yard, but they do not disappear. They stay in the neighborhood, and as soon as I refill the feeders, they are back, cracking one sunflower seed after another with their massive bills and sending my seed bill soaring.
|Evening Grosbeaks in January|
When the European colonists were settling the Atlantic coast, the Evening Grosbeak was not present. It was primarily a bird of the western mountains, Northwest, although one of the earliest specimens was collected at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.
When first discovered, the Evening Grosbeak was observed to sing in the evening - hence its name. This observation was incorporated in both its common name and its scientific name.
Scientifically, the Evening Grosbeak has been named (until recently) Hesperiphona vesperina. Hesperiphona refers to the Hesperides, the “Daughters of the Night,” who dwell on the western edge of the world where the sun sets. The Evening Grosbeak was first observed in the far west where the sun sets. Or perhaps more precisely, as one source suggests, the name comes from the Greek hesperios, “at evening,” and phona,”voice” - hence “evening voice.”
With scientific redundancy, the species name is vesperina, from the Latin meaning “belonging to the evening.”
|Male cracks seeds and feeds a fledgling.|
The name is poetic, but untrue. The Evening Grosbeak sings any time of the morning, afternoon, or evening. The song is sometimes described as a loud “peeyr” with a ringing quality, but that is a generous description. The Evening Grosbeak is not much of a songster.
Historically, the Evening Grosbeak was a western species. Until the late 1800s, the bird was rarely seen east of the Mississippi. Eastern expansion is commonly attributed to the widespread planting of box elder trees in prairie windbreaks and as an ornamental tree in northeastern cities. Seeds of the box elder persist on the tree through winter, which allowed erratic winter flocks from the west to overwinter (Forbush 1929). Some overwintering birds remained to nest, leading to the expansion of its breeding range. The first recorded nesting in Vermont was in 1926.
|The large, powerful beak accounts for the folk name, "English Parrot."|
The Evening Grosbeak is a bright and conspicuous bird. Such bright colors are usually associated with tropical birds such as the Baltimore Oriole, Scarlet Tanager, or Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Parrots are almost entirely tropical or sub-tropical birds; the Evening Grosbeak has sometimes been called the English Parrot, on account of its plumage, big beak, and occasional feeding habits. However, the Evening Grosbeak is anything but a tropical bird. It is a bird of northern and western forests. Its range straddles the U.S.-Canadian border. How then does it come to be so colorful?
The answer is found in the Evening Grosbeak’s original homeland in the Northwest. Arthur Bent in his 1968 life history of the western Evening Grosbeak writes that it “is largely a bird of the higher altitudes whose plumage is a blending, a chiaroscuro, of the high-lights and shadows of the great hills.” He cites Enid Michael who wrote from Yosemite in 1926: “The Evening Grosbeak ... furnishes a splendid example of protective coloring in birds. It is brilliantly colored white, yellow, black and olive. It would seem to be one of the most conspicuous of high Sierran birds. Yet its brightest color is almost identical with the lemon color of the lichens found throughout our high Sierra.”
|Evening Grosbeak, female|
These accounts remind me that when driving our dirt roads in the summer time, I have seen the gravely road in front of me suddenly burst into flight. Evening Grosbeaks, picking up grit and salt, blended into the roadway until my vehicle came to close. Then at the last moment, they flew.
The Evening Grosbeak is a big, stocky finch with a bearing that makes me think of a pugnacious street fighter. But appearances are deceiving. When food is plentiful, most observers use adjectives like quiet, sedentary, gentle, and unafraid. When unmolested, they can become almost tame. They approach backyard feeders from a high perch, where they check things out before coming in to share freely with others birds.
|Courtship display by male Evening Grosbeak|