For the Birds Radio Program: Evening Grosbeak, 2010

Original Air Date: Nov. 16, 2010

What happened to this once-abundant bird?

Duration: 4′37″


On Sunday, Russ and I visited his mom in Port Wing, Wisconsin. The moment we arrived, I parked myself in the chair next to the window and looked out and, instantly, what to my wondering eyes should appear but six Evening Grosbeaks.

When Russ and I moved to Duluth in 1981, Evening Grosbeaks were the first birds to appear at our new feeders. I’d only seen them a handful of times before I moved here, but they quickly became interwoven in the very fabric of our lives, their comfortable sounds a constant in the background, the twinkling of their yellow and white plumage a lovely sight to focus on or be distracted by whenever the curtains were open. There were virtually always dozens in the yard, and seldom did I experience a week at any time of year when I didn’t see at least a few. Their numbers started declining during the 90s. It was worrying from the start, though when I first started talking about it, I remember my fears being pooh-poohed by birders and scientists, who said it was just a temporary local issue.

My mother-in-law keeps track of all her feeder birds. Yesterday was the first time she marked Evening Grosbeak in the notebook she started in 2007. It was 2007 when I saw the last one I’ve seen in my yard, a single female who remained for just a few minutes. It had been four years since I’d seen a small flock here before that. No one knows why these wonderful birds are declining, but the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project Feeder Watch, which tracks feeder visitors throughout the United States and Canada, verifies that they’ve pretty much vanished from the eastern half of the continent.

When they were abundant, Evening Grosbeaks were like feathered pigs. I often went through fifty or even a hundred pounds of sunflower seeds in a single week during their heyday. They’d fill my platform feeders, jostling for position, darting at any birds that got into their face. I don’t know what it was about them that made people so universally fond of them—sure they were pretty, but so are blue jays. Blue Jays don’t take as much food at feeders, and aren’t as aggressive, but a lot of people vilify them, while everyone seemed to get a kick out of their Evening Grosbeak bullies. And then, suddenly, they vanished.

Even during the years when they were most abundant in our feeders, Evening Grosbeaks managed to keep their personal lives private. Those of us who lived where they were most concentrated may have seen them virtually year-round, but their wanderings beyond their central range have always been a mystery. And even those of us who lived with them during the breeding season were seldom privy to their pair bonds and nesting habits, so accounts of their life history are filled with gaps.

In March 1964, a small private plane flying near Boulder, CO, collided with a female Evening Grosbeak at altitude of over 12,000 feet, which was roughly 6,400 feet above ground. The poor bird crashed through plane’s windshield, was recovered inside the plane, and positively identified. The pilot reported no unusual weather that might have forced the bird that high, suggesting that this may not be an unusual altitude for flight, but fortunately for everyone, that was a one-time occurrence. Evening Grosbeaks may have declined because of more intensive forestry focused on managing for pulp rather than saw lumber, from pesticides eliminating some of their favorite foods during the breeding season, such as spruce budworm, or from changing weather patterns. They also hit windows and were taken by cats at a much higher rate than most birds. We don’t know which factors were most important, but I’m certain that airplane collisions were not one of them.