Grosbeaks - Kate Crowley
They are called Grosbeaks, which describes their heavy duty, large bills. Gros in French can mean ‘big, large, thick, or heavy’. In French you don’t pronounce the ‘s’, but in English when speaking about these birds, we say what sounds like grossbeaks. Of course in English, ‘gross’ describes something that is offensive, but these birds are anything but offensive – unless you happen to be trying to put a band on their leg and they get a piece of your palm between aforementioned beak. You can’t really blame the offending bird for this behavior, but you quickly learn to do “Anything” possible, to prevent it from happening again.
I have had the chance to hold and band rose-breasted grosbeaks -those beautiful birds of summer with the black and white plumage, highlighted by the splash of red spilling down their breast (only on males). These chunky birds are a handful, literally and figuratively. They belong to the same family as the cardinals, which you have probably noticed also have heavy bills: all the better to crack open seeds.
In the winter months, if we’re lucky we will see grosbeaks from a different family. This is where common names can cause confusion. Evening grosbeaks and pine grosbeaks belong to the Family Fringillidae, so they are not even close relatives of the rose-breasted grosbeaks, even though their name would indicate as such. But again, the name does accurately describe the physical size and shape of their bills.
In the 1970s at the Audubon Center, my husband Mike conducted research on the population dynamics and movements of the Evening Grosbeak flocks that used to arrive by the hundreds in the winter months. It’s hard to even imagine now what it would have been like to watch these gorgeous yellow, black and white birds with the big white beaks swirl down to the ground to feed on sunflower seeds.
Mike said, “In those years (1970’s) the grosbeaks were always abundant – they really emptied feeders fast, but I began to notice a pattern. They would be there in large numbers (over a hundred) and then the numbers would dwindle until the next storm when the numbers would soar. I began to question whether their movements were really storm related events. So I began to band them – close to 500 over a few years and watch. What would be interesting was the fact that the banded birds would not be there after the next storm. Some people said they removed their own bands with their large and powerful beaks. But then I got lucky. After one particularly strong storm front two of my bands were recovered the next day – one in SW MN and the other in South central MN. They had moved with the storm and a new batch had moved in. This proof came in subsequent events and cleared up a mystery. “My flock” was really a population in constant flux. But then in the late seventies the flocks did not show up any more.”
Evening grosbeaks are erratic in their winter movements and may show up regularly for a few years and then disappear for a few, but in the last two decades their appearances in this part of Minnesota have become very rare. That’s why Mike and I were so excited last week when a small flock of five evening grosbeaks landed in the branches of the red pine in our front yard.
I was walking back from the mailbox, when I thought I heard Mike call my name. I yelled back, “yeah” twice and got no response and thought I had been imagining things. Then Mike came out the back door and said as loudly as he could without scaring them off – ‘There are evening grosbeaks in the front yard!” “Where, where?” I asked, looking around and then seeing them, oh so briefly, sitting in the tree. Before we could grab a camera or even binoculars, they took off towards the east. Crestfallen we went inside.
We hoped they would return, but these birds seem to be gadabouts that are always looking for a better spot. We wished we had put out more sunflower seeds that morning, but hindsight……
I have looked at the maps on the Project Feederwatch site and though they don’t show results from this winter yet, I could look back to 1989, up until last year and it is obvious that these birds are definitely being seen infrequently and irregularly throughout the northern United States. Large flocks of 50 or more are even more infrequent. Scientists aren’t sure what to make of this change in population. They expect it has to do with habitat loss, mainly in their breeding areas, which are for the most part, in the forested regions across the border in Canada and in the intermountain west of the U.S. Mike said that he had read that it might have to do with the loss of their favorite winter seeds – box elders. As these trees have been reduced in numbers the birds have moved east instead of south.
It is a shame that we no longer see these bright, boisterous birds. They could make a winter day shine like no other.