Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Welcome Presence of the Evening Grosbeak

When we lived in Pennsylvania, some winters our yard was visited by thieves who descended upon the bird feeders in a flock of ten to twenty birds, cleaned the seed from the feeders, then flew on. The attack was repeated every two or three weeks, until Spring finally returned. Then they would be gone, not to be seen again for another two or three years.

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
As common as the Evening Grosbeak is in my yard, for many birdwatchers it is a rare, sought after species. Last year a young birder who reads my blog emailed me; he was going to be in southern Vermont for a weekend. Could he come by to see the grosbeaks? Unfortunately, that Spring weekend was the one weekend when the grosbeaks decided to go elsewhere. As soon as he was safely back in New Jersey, the grosbeaks were back in my trees.

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.
Scientists have recently reclassified the Evening Grosbeak. It is now Coccothrautus  vesperina. It shares its Genus with the Hawfinch of Europe and the Hooded Grosbeak of South America. Coccothraustes is from the Greek to “shatter,” a reference to crushing fruit pits. But it is still “vesperina” - the bird that sings in the evening.

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
Another writer in 1902 wrote: “While watching the birds on Mt. Shasta one day, I was struck by the conspicuousness of one that flew across an open space. As it lit on a dead stub whose silvery branches were touched with yellow lichen, to my amazement it simply vanished. Its peculiar greenish yellow toned in perfectly with the greenish yellow of the lichen.”

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
As conspicuous as the Evening Grosbeak is when present, comparatively little is known about its life history. During the breeding season, it is secretive. It prefers mature, open-canopy mixed forests. It builds a flimsy nest high in a tree, a practice which makes it very difficult to study.    So ... when I spend a sultry summer day sitting on my back porch, I am not just idling away my time when its too hot to do anything else. I am doing research. I am observing the Evening Grosbeaks.

Good birding!

3 comments:

KaHolly said...

Wow, what a great post! Excellent, interesting information accompanied by some absolutely gorgeous captures of this beautiful bird!! Well done, and thanks. p.s. Love your header! ~karen

dAwN said...

Great shots! I don't see these birds very often.

Dan Huber said...

Great informative post Chris. I am hoping to see these guys soon, none yet at the feeders.

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