by Alexandria Simpson
March…the beginning of spring.
Birders in the south realize that winter is coming to an end and begin to welcome migrating birds, while northern birders patiently wait for their turn. Last year, the ABA gave us another reason to look forward to March with the introduction of the Bird of the Year Program. In 2011, the graceful American Kestrel was crowned the first Bird of the Year.
In 2012, the beautiful Evening Grosbeak receives the honor. This species is on my list of birds I want to see someday, so when I was asked to write a post about the 2012 ABA Bird of the Year, I was ecstatic to have an excuse to learn more about them.
Evening Grosbeaks are large Fringillidae finches with short tails and wings and large heads. The name “grosbeak” comes from the French “grosbec,” which means “large beak.” Males have blackish-brown heads and throats, yellow superciliums and flanks, dirty yellow sides, large white wing patches, and black primaries. Females and immatures are gray overall with faint yellow on their necks and sides. The white wing patches are not as big or noticeable as the males’. All ages have pink legs and feet. Their massive bills, the biggest of the ABA-area members of this family, are ivory-colored in winter and greenish in spring.
On the Menu
Evening Grosbeaks uses their big beaks to eat fruits (mostly berries), seeds, and insects. Imagine being able to crack a cherry pit with your beak like an Evening Grosbeak! Sometimes, they eat fine gravel for salt and minerals. During the non-breeding season, Evening Grosbeaks forage in trees, shrubs, and sometimes on the ground in large groups.
In breeding season Evening Grosbeaks are secretive; they have neither special displays nor songs. According to The Sibley Guide to Birds, their song is “apparently a regular repetition of call notes.” The flimsy nest, which looks like a flattened “saucer,” is hard to find, as well. In it, the female lays two to five bluish eggs with brown markings.
There are three subspecies of the Evening Grosbeak. Two breed in Canada and one in southwest United States. Previously, it was placed in its own genus, Hesperiphona, but now it belongs to the Coccothraustes genus, which also includes the Hawfinch.
Evening Grosbeaks breed in coniferous/mixed forests in Canada and western United States and Mexico, and winter in coniferous or deciduous forests. Urban and suburban areas are also good places to look for them in winter months, where large flocks descend on feeders and eat many sunflower seeds. They are a nomadic, irruptive species. Before 1890, these birds were found in the west, hardly ever seen east of the Great Lakes. They moved east because of box elder, maple, and shrub plantings (which are excellent sources of seeds in winter), bird feeders, and insect outbreaks. From the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, largely as a result of its eastward expansion, Evening Grosbeak was the subject of much interest and many studies.
Currently, the Evening Grosbeak is listed as a species of “Least Concern” by the IUCN and described as an “abundant and widespread species.” Some recent studies on this bird include breeding ecology and behavior in Colorado, its impact on insect forest pests, and winter irruptions.
Whether you have never seen an Evening Grosbeak, like me, or you often find this beautiful species feeding in your backyard, I think you’ll agree with me they are an excellent choice as ABA’s 2012 Bird of the Year. Be sure to follow the link to the ABA website to see pictures, download the 2012 Bird of the Year badge for your own blog or website, and more.
Maybe this year I’ll be privileged enough to see one of these lovely birds!
Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Chanticleer Press. 2001.
Gillihan, Scott W. and Bruce, Byers. 2001. Evening Grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/599
About the author: Alexandria Simpson is an avid, sixteen-year-old birder from Santa Anna, Texas. While she wishes she could say she has been birding all of her life, instead she has spent the last four years making up for lost time. She wants to become an ornithologist and someday read scientific papers without falling asleep. Her photography, illustrations, and writings have won awards at local, state, and national levels. She currently serves as one of the student blog editors for The Eyrie.