Grosbeak comeback

The Nature of PEI | by Gary Schneider

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Many Islanders will remember the sight of large flocks of evening grosbeaks visiting their feeders in the 1980s. I’m sure those flocks kept sunflower growers in business all by themselves. When I lived in Montague and on the Baldwin’s Road during that time, there would be up to 120 birds coming to the feeder, looking for the small black oil sunflower seeds.

And the noise! They would wake me up in the morning with their buzzes and chirps, looking to be fed. In some ways it reminded me of spring peepers. When you hear one, it is no big deal, but the sound of a pond full of them is deafening.

Fairly quickly, we went from being visited by over a hundred at a time to not seeing any for an entire year. And they were missed. In November 2018 I had eight evening grosbeaks at the feeder in Tea Hill and it was so exciting.

An adult evening grosbeak is one of most beautiful birds that will visit a feeder in the province. The adult males, especially in their breeding plumage, are a striking combination of bright yellow, jet black, and pure white. I remember them in the winter getting more and more beautiful as spring came on, until it looked as though someone has decorated all the trees around my yard. The females and juvenile males are less colourful, but still very lovely.

Evening grosbeaks are about the size of a starling, tend to be found in flocks, and some years will nest in the province. They are well named, with large beaks easily capable of cracking bigger seeds. In the summer, they consume copious amounts of insects, while during the winter months they will eat seeds from conifers as well as weeds. One winter I watched evening grosbeaks eating black oil sunflower seeds from the preferred platform feeder, then take a break and fly over to a bayberry bush to start eating there. I hadn’t realized that the hard, waxy bayberries were part of their diet.

We don’t actually know exactly what caused the decline in evening grosbeaks throughout the region, and why they suddenly showed up again. Over the past few months, people have been reporting 50–70 evening grosbeaks at their feeders in the province. Part of the decline was attributed to the aerial spraying of pesticides in forests that took away a lot of their food sources, including spruce budworms.

Irruptions of birds—where some years we will see a lot of birds showing up after migrating from the northern boreal forests—happen irregularly. We may go a few years with no pine siskins or American redpolls, and then as if by magic they seem to be all over the place. We do know it is dependent on food availability. When the winter fruit crops of shrubs such as winterberry holly, American mountain ash, highbush cranberry and wild rose are poor, we don’t expect large flocks of robins and waxwings to stay through the winter. But when the lemming populations crash in the tundra, we generally see snowy owls visiting to look for voles and other small rodents. This seems be happening now, as snowy owls are showing up in various locales across the province.

I have missed seeing these lovely birds in abundance over the past two decades. And whatever the reason that they have come back, I am truly glad that they have returned. I know that they are bringing joy to feeder watchers across the province.

Gary SchneiderThe Nature of PEI
Gary Schneider

Gary began writing for The Buzz in the May 2018 issue. He co-chairs ECO-PEI and started the Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project in 1991. The project demonstrates ecologically-sound forest management, with a focus on environmental education, conservation of rare plants, and the restoration of PEI’s native forest. He is an avid birder and lives in Tea Hill.