Evening grosbeaks make a rare visit to Ailsa Craig

Living in Balance
By Jenipher Appleton

Mid 1960s: a typical February morning in Bracebridge, Muskoka at my house. Minus thirty degrees Fahrenheit. My pajama-clad father with winter coat over-top, armed with a bucket of striped sunflower seed, boots crunching over the backyard snow. His goal was to satisfy the voracious appetites of at least a hundred evening grosbeaks waiting in the naked maple tree for their daily feeding. The ancient maple would be festooned with the stunning yellow plumage of the evening grosbeaks. And there they would wait for him to fill the feeders, and to pour copious seeds onto the dining room windowsill. Soon after the solitary bird man had returned to his kitchen, multitudes of grosbeaks would descend upon the seed, affording us a very close-up view of these dazzling finches.
Several sported metal ID bands around their skinny ankles. Bird research was very much alive and well during the mid-‘60s. Without warning, a neighbourhood cat might slink into the yard and the sunny throng would be gone in a trifle, the cacophony would cease and the old maple would be bare once more. Gone are the days that we see the evening grosbeaks in such enormous numbers.
The evening grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus) is a plump, sturdy finch. It has a thick cone-shaped bill ideal for cracking seeds. Its plumage is unmistakable, with the brilliant yellow body and conspicuous gold band across the forehead. The snow- white wing patch is also distinctive. They were first noted in the early 19th century in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies and were named evening grosbeaks because the settlers thought they came out of the woods only to sing after sundown. This, of course, is not true. I prefer to associate the name with the beauty of a golden sunset. Their range has spread as far east as Newfoundland and Labrador and as far south as Alabama and Georgia. Such wanderings of the grosbeaks have been traced through the ID banding of the birds, beginning in the 1960’s.

Evening grosbeaks primarily eat seeds from the cones of spruce, balsam fir and other conifers, but also enjoy seeds and fruits from various deciduous trees. The favourite choice at feeders is any type of sunflower seed. They are truly voracious, known to wolf down 95-100 seeds in a minute! Grosbeaks will feed on the ground and love tray-style feeders. What a welcome addition these magnificent birds are to your back yard, even if they are a little hard on the pocketbook.

Current sightings
In all of the 28 years that we have lived on our country property north of Ailsa Craig, we have had the pleasure of the grosbeaks only twice; and certainly not in the hordes that abounded in the ‘60s. A small grouping of perhaps six to eight birds is all that we have seen. Earlier this month, I was walking down our road with Fergus the Labrador puppy when my cell phone rang. It was my husband bearing the exciting news that there was a small flock of evening grosbeaks on the tray feeder in our back yard (it doesn’t take too much to entertain us). I set off at a jog in hopes of seeing the birds. Alas! When I arrived at home, the elusive grosbeaks had already left. Ever the skeptic, I asked husband and son, “Are you sure it wasn’t just some really big fat goldfinches?” Somewhat slighted, they assured me that they had definitely seen evening grosbeaks. They proved it by bringing out the digital camera. Indeed, on the screen were a few of the magnificent birds. I was sorry to have missed them but am hoping they drop by again soon. Now that our spruces are so mature, the chances are better that they might.