The Evening Grosbeak is a fat bird that can lift your spirits

Evening Grosbeaks are bold colored birds that can lift your spirits and brighten your day. On the many dark, cloudy and damp days of winter, a flock of Evening Grosbeaks swooping down and lighting lights on your feeder or in the nearby bare branches of an old apple tree will bring a spark of happiness that the lasts all day. And you can encourage this visit with the right type of feeder and seed.

Although this is primarily a northern bird, nesting across Canada and south into the Rockies, it circles the southern portion of its range that includes central Michigan from west to east finding safe havens and high energy feed at bird feeding stations. Evening Grosbeaks nest in northern coniferous forests in the northern part of the Mitte, the Upper Peninsula and throughout Canada.

Two bird lovers from Midland discovered the Grosbeaks’ flight pattern through the winter in Michigan: Dr. Gene Kenaga and Dr. Mark Wolfe. By studying band returns, they discovered that Evening Grosbeak flocks often fly from Canada south through Minnesota and Wisconsin, then east through Michigan and on to the eastern part of the US before returning north to their Canadian home .

Both Dr. Kenaga as Dr. Wolfe were members of the Midland Nature Club (a chapter of Michigan Audubon), birders and conservationists. They had the patience to allow the company of a young, enthusiastic child who was eager to participate and help (or so he thought) with the amazing discoveries of these two scientists. That enthusiastic boy soon became a biologist and locked in a store of childhood memories of birds and wild animals that are now passed on to the next generation. That “child” is Joe, still a child at heart and still sharing the knowledge and joy that nature brings.
The feeder that works best for the Evening Grosbeaks is a platform feeder filled with black oil sunflower. We know that it can be frustrating to work hard and spend the money to attract these and other rare visitors to a feeding station, only to find out that the squirrels consume most of the feed. This can be a long and challenging endeavor.
To prevent the squirrels from using the supply of sunflower seeds, a simple solution in the design of the feeder can do the trick. A platform that can be made from a piece of plywood on top of a smooth pole does a lot to deter the little furry seed eaters. The pole should be smooth so squirrels can’t get a grip (most branches won’t work).
A four-inch-diameter or larger plastic pipe will work very nicely. This will need to be placed at least eight to 10 feet from any building or tree that the squirrels can climb, as they will jump quite a distance to reach the food dish. The pole must be well anchored in the ground and must be perpendicular to the ground, so that squirrels cannot easily make their way on a slanted pole.
The platform should be at least three feet wide, and you can put a short edge on the platform on two sides to keep the seed from the edge and to make a small hiding place for timid birds. Some birds will also use this edge for a perch.
If seeds remain on the platform overnight, you can find it in the morning. If so, try setting up a trail camera to see who steals the food during a night raid. They could be flying squirrels (we have both northern and southern flying squirrels at this sanctuary), and you might want to go ahead and feed them, since the northern flying squirrel is now listed in Michigan as a “special concern” to its population has decreased in recent years.
Evening Grosbeaks are part of the finch family; they do have strong, thick beaks that easily crack open seeds. Her colors are bold; males have bright yellow forehead, a golden cast on the belly, black wings with large white spots and a pink bill. Females have more subtle colors of soft gray blending with a tinge of yellow, and are just as beautiful as males.
Grobeaks are easy to spot as they soar through this area in fairly large flocks. Not long ago we saw flocks of 50 to 200, or even 1,000 of these birds. But now we are excited to see six to 40 Evening Grosbeaks.
These herds have decreased in number in recent years. The organization Partners in Flight states: “It (the Evening Grosbeak) has the dubious honor of experiencing the steepest population decline (92% since 1970) of all landbirds in the continental US and Canada. Once a favorite of winter feeders, this nomadic species has nearly disappeared in ‘ e Appalachian Mountains and has suffered elsewhere.
There is evidence that sand mining in Canada, where these Grosbeaks were once common, is destroying their coniferous forest habitat. That may be a critical factor in their population decline, but it actually started before sand mining destroyed much of the habitat.
There may be many other factors limiting the population of these bold and bright northern birds. They often feed on spruce budworm, which in some areas is controlled with toxic chemicals. And seeds that Evening Grosbeaks prefer include box elder and mature maple, which are slow-growing trees that are not promoted in current forest management practices.
The first Evening Grosbeak to be identified was collected, preserved and documented by Henry Schoolcraft in April of 1823 near Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. He named it after his evening song, which he enjoyed in the evening after a hard work. This song was later heard throughout the day …. but the name stuck.
Schoolcraft was an early explorer of Michigan and the Upper Mississippi, a geographer interested in geology, mineralogy, birds and other animals, and a surveyor. Many townships, roads, lakes and a ship are named after him, as well as a county in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and Schoolcraft College in Livonia, where we present our educational programs each year. Schoolcraft College, while working with the Wildlife Recovery Association, has built hundreds of owl nest boxes and loon nest islands.

Evening Grosbeaks are irregular visitors to Michigan. In some years they come in large herds, and in other years you may not see them at all in mid-Michigan. This fact makes them a rare and special treat to see and enjoy, both on a feeder when they enjoy your help, and in the forest, wild and free. At the feeder, they can cover the space with their yellow, white and black colors, but when a mourning dove or a blue jay approaches, the Grosbeak steps aside.
Evening Grosbeaks typically nest in northern forests of spruce and fir, and sometimes in mature deciduous trees. But their nests are hard to find, and they are extremely secretive at the time of nesting. These beautiful birds migrated three decades ago in large flocks of more than 1,000. Now you are lucky to see a handful of these brightly colored birds at your feeder.
These feeding stations are not only a pleasure to observe, they can also be a critical factor in protecting these birds from near extinction. Our “managed” forests do not provide the diversity of plants and the mature trees needed for maximum seed production needed to support our beautiful and diverse wildlife bird and animal life.
Evening Grosbeaks are more often seen in the Upper Peninsula, where I had the opportunity to see more than 100 birds light on an apple tree and make regular visits to the feeding station nearby. At first only a handful of these bright cheerful birds sat on the tree, with small soft voices that would not attract a predator: a discussion between birds. Maybe they were looking for hawks and other enemies.
But then hundreds more descended from above and joined the smaller herd. This was more Evening Grosbeaks than I had ever seen in one place. They also visit this sanctuary in western Midland County, as well as neighboring feeding stations throughout the county, and enjoy the platform feeders filled with sunflowers.
Evening Grosbeaks need our help, and we will all benefit from providing that help.
Wildlife Recovery Association is a 501(c)3 charitable organization dedicated to education, rehabilitation and research for the benefit of wildlife, and management of a sanctuary to protect rare and sensitive species. To donate to help these beautiful animals, visit wildliferecovery.org or write to Wildlife Recovery Association, 531 S. Coleman Road, Shepherd, MI 48883.

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