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Evening Grosbeak

Above: adult male Evening Grosbeak by Julie Yatsko

How do I recognize it?

In an age when nature prose often had a deep purple tint, 19th-century ornithologist Elliott Coues wrote of the male Evening Grosbeak: “Clothed in the most striking colour-contrasts of black, white, and gold, he seems to represent the allegory of diurnal transmutations; for his sable pinions close around the brightness of his vesture, just as the night encompasses the golden hues of the sunset; while the clear white space enfolded in these tints foretells the dawn of the morrow.”

More simply, Evening Grosbeaks are hefty, short-tailed finches with massive, conical bills; their plumage suggests giant goldfinches. Adult males are deep yellow, strongly tinged with olive on the head and shoulders, and contrasting with bold black-and-white wings and black tail. Females are greyer overall with variable amounts of yellowish highlights on the neck and underwing areas, and much white flecking on the tail feathers. Unlike most finches, Evening Grosbeaks do not have a complex song, but their frequent calls are distinctively shrill.

Above: Female Evening Grosbeaks, montage emphasizing the strong bill and yellow highlights, by Peter Taylor

Does it migrate?

Evening Grosbeaks nest across Canada from coast to coast, extending well south in parts of the United States, with localized populations also in Mexico. In Manitoba, they breed mainly in the southern boreal forest, northward almost to Thompson. Their winter range overlaps much of the breeding range, but they wander southward in varying numbers from October to May. Their travels include a large east-west component, and Manitoba-banded Evening Grosbeaks have been found as far away as Maine and Washington state, as well as south to Oklahoma and Tennessee.

Above: Male Evening Grosbeak (left) and male Pine Grosbeak offer contrasts in colour and proportions as they share a winter feeder, by John C. Corden.

Where does it live?

Evening Grosbeaks spend the summer mostly in mixed forest, sometimes frequenting gardens in boreal towns and cottage communities, but their nests are rarely found; three or four eggs are normally laid. Summer diet, especially for the young, is rich in insect matter, and Evening Grosbeaks are among the birds known to cash in on spruce budworm outbreaks. Whereas family groups sometimes visit feeders in late summer, winter flocks often jostle for sunflower seeds at feeders near the edge of the boreal forest. When so concentrated, Evening Grosbeaks often mingle with Pine Grosbeaks and other finches. As well as feeder supplies, they eat a variety of both wild and cultivated seeds and fruits. They have a particular liking for Manitoba maple seeds, and widespread planting of Manitoba maple is thought to have encouraged an eastward population expansion by Evening Grosbeaks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Evening Grosbeaks (two males and two females) compete for space at a busy feeder, by Peter Taylor

Where can I see it?

Until the late 1970s, Evening Grosbeaks were common winter visitors to Winnipeg, but they rarely visit the city any more. Though declining in numbers, winter flocks can still be seen at or near Cypress River, Pinawa, and many small communities in the southern boreal forest. They are more difficult to find in summer, but good localities include Riding Mountain National Park and both Whiteshell and Nopiming provincial parks. The name “Evening Grosbeak” is misleading, and peak activity is in mid-morning.

Above: Evening Grosbeak approaching a feeder, by Julie Yatsko. Intermediate in appearance between adult male and female plumages, the white-flecked tail confirms that this is an unusually brightly coloured female rather than a muted male.

Conservation Status:

A long-term decline in Evening Grosbeak numbers has led to its classification as “vulnerable” in Manitoba and a species of special concern nationally. Though many possible factors have been identified, causes for the decline are poorly understood.

Above: A less common sight than formerly: a male Evening Grosbeak decorates a tree on a frosty morning, by Garry Budyk

Did you know:

Evening Grosbeaks, in common with several other finches, have a craving for salt, which is thought to aid digestion of a seed-rich diet. They have discovered that vehicles accumulate road salt, and they will forage in, on, and under parked vehicles, as well as along highways, to satisfy their need.

Above: Evening Grosbeaks (four females and two males) seek salty water under a parked car in a Pinawa driveway, by Peter Taylor