Birds of the Glebe, Evening Grosbeak

By Jeanette Rive

I think most would agree that it’s been a strange and unpredictable winter. Some feeders have been very busy, others less so. Most days, my feeder is rather quiet. But one morning when the weather was milder, I had 10 different species at my feeder, a joy to observe. Anecdotally, birding enthusiasts have reported a wider variety of birds overwintering here, including several rarely seen species, such as three additional species of woodpeckers: the Black-backed, the American three-toed and the Red-headed. The waterways have remained more open than usual, and a wider variety of ducks have either stayed here or chosen to overwinter here from elsewhere. In contrast, there have been fewer sightings of some species such as Bohemian waxwings, one of our most beautiful birds.

Bird behaviour is another indication of our changing climate. In the past, migration patterns were more or less predictable. However, over the last decade or more, dwindling food supplies in some areas and the warmer climate creeping north have resulted in changes in the ranges of where birds migrate to or where they choose to overwinter. Birders are seeing overwintering by species that years ago would not have been present in our gardens or our landscape.

Some birds don’t have a predictable migratory pattern, such as the Evening Grosbeak. They don’t migrate to the same location every year but go where food is abundant, so their range over North America is very broad. This autumn and winter, there has been an irruption of Evening Grosbeaks, part of the finch family, arriving from the coniferous forests of the north. Flocks have been seen in different areas of town, including Dow’s Lake and the Arboretum. Perhaps some have visited your feeders. They love sunflower seeds – a finch has been counted eating 96 seeds in one minute! You might notice that to eat a sunflower seed, it first rolls it over end to end in its bill until the seed lies along the sharp edge of the bill, which then closes and shears the dry husk lengthwise until the inedible husk spills out and the seed is eaten.

Their winter diet consists of seeds; in summer, they primarily eat insects, including the spruce budworm which is a forest pest. Because the Evening Grosbeak is so adept at finding small caterpillars, they often provide the first sign of a forest infestation.

In the finch family, the Evening Grosbeak joins the Purple and House finches, red in colour and both found here, and is related to Redpolls, Crossbills and Pine Siskins. About the size of a robin, the Evening Grosbeak is considerably larger than the American goldfinch. Its distinguishing feature is its large bill which can crush seeds which other birds are unable to. The male is distinctly yellow and black, while the female is more subtly marked with grey plumage and a duller yellow. They were originally a western North American bird, but from the 1800s they gradually moved east as more seed-bearing trees, such as ornamental box elders, were planted. The Evening Grosbeak was first spotted in the Toronto area in the 1850s. The French name is “le gros-bec errant,” the wandering grosbeak. The English name was given in an erroneous belief that it only emerged to sing at sunset!

It is a songbird without a distinguishing song. They are noisy birds, vocalising with piercing calls and burry chirp notes, but they don’t sing to attract a mate. They are monogamous and breed in the northern coniferous forests, building their nest high up along a horizontal branch of a spruce or a deciduous tree. It’s a loosely constructed nest, lined with grass and moss. The female lays three to four greenish eggs and incubates them for two weeks. Chicks fledge two weeks later though they will be fed by the parents for a short while after. Evening Grosbeaks can have more than one brood a year.

Enjoy these beautiful birds. By mid-March, the northwards migrating season will be starting, prompted by longer days and warmer sun. Birds will be tired after their long journeys and will be looking for sustenance. Do keep your feeders full.

Jeanette Rive is a Glebe bird enthusiast and Glebe Report proofreader.

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