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Evening grosbeaks are treats for the eyes

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I remember the first time I ever saw an evening grosbeak. A friend and I were preparing to depart in our canoe onto Seagull Lake of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. As my friend tinkered with his gear, I decided to take a short walk on the gravel road that led to the access.

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As I rounded a bend that meandered amongst the towering conifers, I watched as a flock of yellow birds that were evidently picking grit from the roadway suddenly take flight and noisily escape into the thicket. The birds' vocalizations were comparable to the familiar chatter or house sparrows and, in another way, like that of parakeets. But of course they weren't either bird - these were wild, native birds of the forest. And I liked what I saw.

Since that time so many years ago, I have always savored the moments I've been privileged to share with evening grosbeaks. Though indeed raucous, the evening grosbeak is a beloved species of grosbeak that's certain to please, particularly during Minnesota's long, drawn-out winters when our color-starved eyes are especially needy.

Still, despite living in a house surrounded by forests, I have seen precious few evening grosbeaks over the years, albeit the adjacent woodlands are more of the deciduous variety and undoubtedly a factor why I don't observe many of these beautiful birds. But some people, including those who reside in seemingly good grosbeak breeding habitat, continue to ask, "Where have all the evening grosbeaks gone?"

One of the reasons evening grosbeaks may or may not be stopping by your feeders this year or in years past, is because they are an "irruptive" species of bird. Many other birds are irruptive as well. Simply put, an irruptive species are those birds that vary significantly in number from year to year; whereas an "irruption" is defined as "a sudden, dramatic and rapid increase in a bird population."

These irruptions or fluctuations tend to be food-driven. During years when natural food sources are scarce in a region where a particular species of bird normally occupies on any given year, the same species may be found in large, concentrated numbers throughout another region the next year.

We experienced an irruption of owls - specifically great gray owls and northern hawk owls - all across northern Minnesota during the fall and winter of 2004. And this year, for example, many people, including yours truly, have reported observing large numbers of common red polls and American goldfinches at their birdfeeders.

But contrary to what some people think, evening grosbeaks appear to be doing very well continentally. In fact, not only is their population thought to be increasing, evening grosbeaks are expanding their range as well. And while the birds breed throughout several counties in north central Minnesota, their primary breeding range is found in the northern and northeastern mixed coniferous-deciduous forests of the state.

Evening grosbeaks are about 7-9 inches long from beak to tail. Their stout stature is accentuated by a disproportionately sized bill and short tail. Yet, in spite of their physique, it's probably their coloration that impresses us most. Male birds are nearly unmistakable from other species of birds; their bright yellow foreheads and supercilium, yellow mantles and breasts, black crowns, black wing-feathers, and black tails, and their white inner secondary wing-feathers and tertials set them apart from all other birds. Females' plumage is dominated by dull grays and browns with some green and yellow about their nape and neck.

Breeding primarily across Canada, south throughout parts of western United States and into Mexico within mixed coniferous forests, evening grosbeaks live up to their fame as being an irregularly occurring, yet common, bird. As I pointed out earlier, evening grosbeaks are a "sometimes you see them and sometimes you don't" species of bird that's inclined to periodic irruptions.

Even today, evening grosbeaks, which were once uncommon east of the Great Lakes prior to 1890, appear to be expanding their range eastward. It is believed that the popularity of recreational bird feeding is enabling the species to populate or frequent places they never used to be seen.

These beautiful birds, evening grosbeaks, whose males appear to be wearing sporty looking yellow visors as head and eye adornment, are most certainly interesting and enjoyable birds to watch. Proficient feeders, evening grosbeaks have been observed cracking the shells of as many as 20 sunflower seeds a minute. During years when the spruce budworm, a forest insect pest that periodically infests spruce trees, becomes extremely abundant, evening grosbeaks gather in large flocks to feast on the bounty.

And their name, so curiously confusing, was apparently derived from 19th century English-speaking settlers living in the Rocky Mountains. The settlers mistakenly believed that the birds only came out of the forest to sing after the sun went down, even though they do indeed have a penchant for delivering evening songs.

But it was perhaps the French who may have had it right all along. Their name for the evening grosbeak was, "le gros-bec errant," which means, not surprisingly, "the wandering grosbeak."

For sure, the evening grosbeak, sometimes here, sometimes not, are birds of uncommon beauty for us to appreciate as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

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Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com

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