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Evening grosbeak continue to appear in North Country

March 30, 2019
By JUSTIN A. LEVINE - Outdoors Writer (jlevine@adirondackdailyenterprise.com) , Lake Placid News

VERMONTVILLE - Local volunteers spent about six days combing the Tri-Lakes region for birds during the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count late last year, and despite spotting 40 species, one somewhat common winter bird was not seen: the evening grosbeak.

But even as the species is in decline, flocks of the birds were seen in the North Country outside of the bird count days.

Originally a western species, the Audubon Society says that evening grosbeaks began an eastward expansion in the late 1800s.

Article Photos


An evening grosbeak sits in a small tree in Vermontville earlier this winter.
News photo — Justin A. Levine

"Originally a western bird, almost unknown east of the Great Lakes before the 1890s, it now breeds commonly east to New England and the Maritime Provinces," the Audubon Society says on its website. "Its eastward spread may have been helped by both the planting of box elders (a favorite food tree) across northern prairies, and the abundance of bird feeders in the Northeast.

"This chunky, big-billed finch wanders widely in winter, descending on bird feeders in colorful, noisy flocks, to thrill feeder-watchers and to consume prodigious amounts of sunflower seeds."

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says that evening grosbeaks began moving east with each winter, and reached Rhode island by 1910. Within a decade, they were considered a regular sight in the east during winter. Cornell also reports they can live a long time, with one bird reaching at least his mid-teens.

"The oldest recorded evening grosbeak was a male, and at least 16 years, 3 months old when he was found in New Brunswick in 1974," Cornell said. "He had been banded in Connecticut in 1959."

The distinctive bird - the male has yellow, white, gray and black coloring, while female coloration is more subdued - is a member of the finch family and uses its large beak to easily eat bigger nuts and seeds. Howeverr, sunflower seeds seem to be a favorite.

"Seeds make up majority of diet, especially seeds of box elder, ash, maple, locust, and other trees," Audubon writes. "Also feeds on buds of deciduous trees, berries, small fruits, weed seeds. Will feed on oozing maple sap. Eats some insects in summer. At bird feeders, very fond of sunflower seeds. Will eat fine gravel for minerals and salts. Huge bill allows it to crack large seeds with ease."

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's eBird shows sightings of evening grosbeaks all over the United States, into the far reaches of northern Canada and as far south as central Mexico. But both Cornell and Audubon report the population of evening grosbeaks is falling.

"In recent decades, eastern population has declined again, but reasons are poorly understood," Audubon says. "Winter range in East very irregular, large numbers moving far south in some winters, little apparent movement in others. Such invasions have become smaller and less frequent in recent years."

"The Evening Grosbeak adds a splash of color to winter bird feeders every few years, when large flocks depart their northern breeding grounds en masse to seek food to the south," Cornell reports. "This declining species is becoming uncommon, particularly in the eastern United States."

The birds, which are members of the finch family, share parenting duties although females are the only ones to incubate the eggs, which range in color from pale blue to blue-green, and have blotches of brown, gray or purple. But males may feed the female during the 11 to 14 days the eggs are incubated, and once the chicks hatch, both male and female will feed the young. Fledglings leave the nest about two weeks after hatching, and evening grosbeaks may have one or two broods of 2 to 5 eggs per year.

In addition to feeding the females during incubation, males may also try to curry favor with a female during the mating ritual as well.

"In courtship, male 'dances' with head and tail raised, wings drooped and vibrating, as he swivels back and forth," Audubon says. "Male frequently feeds female. In another courtship display, both members of a pair may bow alternately."

Cornell research says that while evening grosbeaks are a song bird, they don't really have the identifiable pattern of "song" that many other species have.

"The Evening Grosbeak is a songbird without a song-that is, it does not seem to use any complex sounds to attract a mate or defend its territory," the Cornell lab says. "It does have a small repertoire of simple calls, including sweet, piercing notes and burry chirps."

Evening grosbeaks have similar coloring to goldfinches, but are quite a bit larger. In the east, the Adirondacks are just about the only place outside of New England where the birds can be found year-round.

 
 
 

 

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