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The grosbeak soundtrack

After years without them, evening grosbeaks have returned to our yard

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 4/28/21

A cheery, and once-familiar, sound has returned to our homestead on the edge of the Lost Lake Swamp in recent weeks. For years, when we first moved to the area, the boisterous trilling of evening …

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The grosbeak soundtrack

After years without them, evening grosbeaks have returned to our yard

Posted

A cheery, and once-familiar, sound has returned to our homestead on the edge of the Lost Lake Swamp in recent weeks. For years, when we first moved to the area, the boisterous trilling of evening grosbeaks was a routine part of our Northwoods soundtrack. The grosbeaks often seemed to just spend the day in the yard, either yakking it up high in the trees, devouring sunflower seeds in the feeder, or picking grit from the floor of the garage, since I rarely get around to shutting the door.
Then, for years, they seemed to all but disappear. A couple birds would drop down to a feeder for a bite every few months, but they would disappear as quickly as they came. My observation wasn’t just a one-off, either. Across the Great Lakes region into New England and much of southern Canada, birders have documented the precipitous decline of evening grosbeak populations, beginning in the 1980s and accelerating in the 1990s and early 2000s. These once-abundant birds had disappeared from feeders all across the eastern half of North America and nobody really seemed to know why.
But this winter brought a surprising influx of these entertaining birds to our yard, and it appears they’re now settling in for the breeding season. Unlike most other parts of the U.S., where evening grosbeaks are strictly a winter visitor from the north, these brightly-colored, stub-tailed birds (about the size of a red-winged blackbird) live here in the North Country year-round.
I most fondly remember them from the summers, when they would bring their fledged young ones multiple times during the day to feed them sunflower seeds, which the parents would break open for their wing-fluttering charges before stuffing the “meat” into their gaping maws.
Now, after years of absence, they’re suddenly back. A flock of ten, five males and as many females, just moved in and have taken up residence, just like the old days.
And we’re not the only ones, as the reports and photos from members of the Ely Field Naturalists attest. Evening grosbeaks have been downright common at area feeders most of the winter. We saw them more regularly at our house as well, although a bit more sporadically than they’ve become in the last several weeks.
For me, that evening grosbeak trill gets me out of bed at the crack of dawn, just to be sure the smorgasbord is laid out in time for their morning repast. I eat my own breakfast now while watching their antics just outside the window.
I have little doubt the birds are mated pairs and they are nesting somewhere nearby, which means we should have young ones visiting with the adults before the end of May. I’m looking forward to that. While April is early for nesting for many birds, that’s not the case for evening grosbeaks, which can nest even when there’s snow on the ground, as long as food is abundant.
Grosbeaks aren’t territorial about nesting, either, and they still hang out in flocks even in the breeding season. They can nest close to one another, and that’s likely due to the fact that they only nest when food sources are abundant, so there’s less need to defend territory.
What is unclear, at this point, is whether this is the start of a longer-term trend of improving numbers of evening grosbeaks in our region, or whether this is simply a one-year aberration. Like most northern finches, evening grosbeaks are highly nomadic, so we could just be benefitting from being at the center of their latest congregation. Hopefully, however, their cheery trilling will continue to be a part of our local soundtrack for years to come.

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