I took a second look at the bird feeders one morning—something was different—not the normal chickadee-nuthatch-titmouse convention, with doves and jays on standby. This time there was a group of large, chunky birds, with predominantly yellow and gray shades, and big bills. I watched them, males with females, and juveniles, too. I yelled to Kay, “evening grosbeaks,” as she said the same. What a treat!
Since that first encounter a few weeks ago, we’ve watched to see if they would come around again. Absent during mild weather, they returned at the onset of a cold spell. We thought their appearance here was a bit unusual. After confirming with friends, we began researching the behavior.
Biologists call it an irruption when a redistribution of a species occurs due to natural causes. It might be from a higher birth rate, followed by competition for food that results in an influx; weather, predation, and disease could also explain it. Recently, high numbers of purple finches and evening grosbeaks have been moving south from summer homes. Brown County residents who feed birds may notice them.
Evening grosbeaks are known for their thick bills. Their head feathers remind me of the University of Michigan football helmets. They arrived at the state park’s Nature Center bird observation window a few winters ago. We stocked sunflower seed feeders daily for a variety of birds. The year-round attraction gives visitors an up-close look through a one-way glass. I didn’t see them every winter, or with predictable cold fronts. They flew in from the nearest open vista, arriving at every feeder, noisy and busy. Soon flurries flitted down. Unlike the rose-breasted grosbeak, an unrelated springtime migrant here, these birds waited for the cold.
The evening grosbeak, or EGB to birders, is a member of the finch and old-world sparrow Fringillidae family, in the order Passeriformes. The length is about 8 inches with a wingspan of 14.5 inches. They weigh about two ounces and are short. Watch for field identifiers: white wing patches, a massive head, short tail, and pointed wings. The big bill, like the cardinal, is the standout. It allows seeds of many kinds to be consumed, the hulls faintly turned, opened, then dropped as it feeds. “The evening grosbeak has the largest bill among the North American species in the family,” says Sibley in his Guide to Bird Life and Behavior.
This edition joins our companion copy of The Sibley Guide to Birds, a large and cumbersome field guide that has been taken on bird outings. Our well-worn copy shows the thick wavy pages from being dropped in a few creeks. Now we wait to consult both copies when we get back home and opt for something easier to carry. Like most birders, we find a small guide better, tucked in a back pocket, with hands free on the binoculars.
“You could do a lot worse than to be a bird watcher,” says Sibley, and probably other nature authors. Birds, and particularly winter birds, are easy to feed and certainly fun to watch over morning coffee when they feed voraciously at daybreak.
But what’s missing? Soon a few different feeders with different kinds of seeds, like thistle or safflower, are added; and a suet feeder; then a heated water bowl; and a brush pile of discarded branches to provide needed cover. There you have it: food, water, and cover, the necessary ingredients for a successful winter bird feeding program.
People sometimes ask about the benefits birds derive from our feeding them. Birders will claim they put out feeders for the joy of seeing the birds. Do birds become dependent on our daily offerings? If we are away a few days and unable to stock feeders, will they suffer? Birds are far more resilient and resourceful than we might think. When they aren’t at our feeders, they resume foraging. Supplemental feeding is in addition to what they will find naturally.
The evening grosbeaks were here from what happened elsewhere in their range. While a temporary bonus for us in southern Indiana, it isn’t all that unique. Birds react to weather fronts and move where food and conditions are tolerable. Home feeding can help.
Why not start your own bird feeding program and look for these beauties this winter?