It's been a long time since we've enjoyed large numbers of evening grosbeaks. Every year, I hope for a "grosbeak winter" and perhaps this will be one. Scattered reports of sightings began in December, and now these same yards have at least two dozen birds coming to their feeders. I keep hoping to hear some familiar peeping but no luck so far.
Despite the “gros” in their name, these are handsome, even beautiful birds that resemble giant goldfinches. The first time you see one, you think of a wild parrot. Their large, conical bill is responsible. Even their name makes reference to it. That part of their name is easy to understand but where does “evening” come from? For some reason, it was originally thought that this member of the finch family sang mostly in the evenings. That is definitely not the case.
You know grosbeaks are in the area even if they are high in the treetops or flying overhead. They call continually to one another, and the sound has been described in several ways. Some say it sounds like “peet, peet, kreeck.” Others describe it as a ringing, finch-like “clee-ip” or a high, clear “thew.” The territorial or courtship song is a short warble. As these are gregarious birds who flock together, they stay in touch through a variety of calls. They sound like loud, peeping chicks when they fly overhead or call from the trees.
If they arrive in your neighborhood and find the feeders, hold onto your wallet. Their bills were made for cracking and shelling seeds and they go through sunflower seeds like a hot knife through butter. Even though they are bulky in build and not what you would call small birds, they fit themselves quite nicely on feeder perches. Evening grosbeaks can even take over the tube-type feeders and will happily put away as much as you provide. Their diet consists mostly of seeds at this time of the year, but they also enjoy berries and other fruits when they are available.
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When I first became acquainted with evening grosbeaks, someone either told me about their fondness for maple seeds or I read it somewhere. I keep hoping to see evidence of this passion for maple seeds, especially broadleaved maples. If these birds would show up in the fall and feast on the endless seed supply hanging on our large maple tree, I wouldn’t have to pull millions of seedlings out of the flower beds every spring.
Evening grosbeaks are resident birds in our area, but there is a seasonal migration that moves them into different areas in widely varying numbers. Food influences their movements, as does the weather. Heavy snow in the mountains will push them into the lower elevations, but how far and where it will push them depends on the availability of food.
During those rare winters when evening grosbeaks settle in at feeding stations in the Northwest, they sometimes stay until early spring. Sunflower seed sales will go up as most of us can’t resist feeding these handsome birds. They’re a rare treat in lowland yards, and we try our best to entice them to stay. Even so, come March they will begin to leave. So if you are among the lucky ones to have them in your yard, enjoy!
Write to Joan Carson, PO Box 217, Poulsbo, WA 98370. Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. (Or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org )