For the Birds Radio Program: Evening Grosbeak

Original Air Date: Dec. 1, 1995

A lone female Evening Grosbeak has been visiting Laura’s yard, and Laura can’t help but wonder about her.

Audio missing


Evening Grosbeaks are one of the true northern finches, irregularly appearing avian nomads. In New England, they used to be found only during winter, and sometimes not even then. We who live near Lake Superior are far luckier–Evening Grosbeaks nest in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota, and we can hear their soft chatterings just about any time of year, but most intensely during late summer, fall, and winter.

Back in the late 80s when we videotaped our kids playing in the backyard, the sound of dozens and dozens of grosbeaks filled the air, giving the tape a lovely but nostalgic quality. Just as the children are now too big for Tonka trucks and sandboxes, the Evening Grosbeaks have moved on. During my children’s entire baby and toddler days, grosbeaks were a regular fixture in our yard–and then, around 1990 when Tommy started kindergarten, they became much scarcer in summer and fall. I miss them as much as I miss having my little toddlers about.

This has been about as poor a year as I’ve had for Evening Grosbeaks. During the entire fall I saw only a few small flocks now and again. But suddenly, for the past two or three weeks, a lone female has taken up residence in my yard. Sometimes she sits in my box elder eating the delicate seeds fluttering in the wind, sometimes she sits in one or another of my sunflower seed feeders, and sometimes she sits on a sunny branch in one of the spruce trees soaking in rays and thinking about life. Evening Grosbeaks have a strong flocking instinct, so we seldom see one alone, and I’ve never before had a healthy lone individual for such an extended period of time.

My interest in her may not be mutual, but she does notice me. She flies off when I come out to fill the feeder, but no longer races out of the yard in a panic–she simply wings into a nearby tree to watch as I pour seeds into each of the feeders. If she’s hungry, she’s down again before I even get back to the house. She’s figured out the difference between Golden Retrievers and Springer Spaniels–you fly away whenever you see Betsy coming, but can stay in a feeder even if Bunter is only a few feet away.

Sometimes when I take a cocoa break by my window, I watch her and wonder what her history is, how she came to leave her family and friends and wander alone in the wilderness. Is she on a spiritual quest? Did she have a blow-out with her spouse? Is she a scout, checking out the lay of the land before she risks bringing her loved ones here? A prodigal child, run away for now, but eventually destined to return to those who love her? Will they kill a fatted calf, or chop down a box elder tree, on her return? Did she simply lose her way?

She seems healthy and alert, and flies perfectly well, so she’s apparently not an injured straggler. When I look at her objectively, she seems quite self-sufficient–surprising to me, having always associated Evening Grosbeaks with large flocks feeding and flying as a unit. Any loneliness I see in her is simply my own projection. Perhaps she just needed some time to herself, as all mothers do now and again, time to renew her soul before getting back into the routine of living with others hour after hour, day after day. Or perhaps she’s making little Christmas surprises where her children can’t discover them. Whatever her reasons for being here, I think about her a lot more than she thinks about me. She’s fine company on long December days, and I’m awfully glad she came.