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What is happening to Evening Grosbeaks?

Evening Grosbeak feeding on box elder seeds.

In the summer of 1981, when my husband and I moved into our house in Duluth, Minnesota, Evening Grosbeaks instantly became woven into the fabric of my daily life. They were the first birds I heard calling in the trees as we lugged boxes and furniture into the house, and the first birds to visit our bird feeders—even before the first chickadees showed up. Day after day throughout the following decade, Evening Grosbeak calls provided a lively and cheerful background soundtrack for our lives, indoors and out.

Their numbers dropped in summer, rose in winter, and were huge during spring and fall migrations, but season after season, year after year throughout the 80s, Evening Grosbeaks were virtually always present in my yard. I had better luck with them than many people because my box elder trees attracted flocks flying overhead, but just about anyone in Duluth with platform feeders offering sunflower seeds had Evening Grosbeaks at least sometimes.

By the early 90s, grosbeak numbers seemed to be declining. I grew concerned, even mentioning my apprehensiveness in my first book in 1993. I thought it was part of a disturbing pattern in Duluth—during this same period, my neighborhood lost a lot of nesting birds, and the huge waves of migrating warblers and thrushes in my backyard dwindled. Friends of mine who lived in Duluth for several decades before I did also noticed the disappearance of many local nesting species—birds which have not returned. Duluth's Christmas Bird Count data was tricky to analyze because the count circle changed in 1979, so the pre-1979 count historical dataset is separate from that post-1979, and the graphs of the datasets are on different scales. Pre-1979, the highest average Duluth count was 20 EVGR per party hour.


The highest average number of EVGR per party hour post-1979 was slightly less than 6.5—a third less than in the earlier period. So the following graph is on a different scale than the previous one. The smaller per-party average is almost certainly an artifact of the increasing numbers of CBC parties during the 70s and 80s. Evening Grosbeak flocks can be localized within a city, but when fewer parties participated, they would naturally have headed to the best feeders, so the number of grosbeaks counted wouldn't increase nearly as significantly as the number of parties did.

Evening Grosbeaks were counted on every single Duluth CBC from 1979 until 2002, when not one was found. There were a handful in subsequent years, but 2011/12 has now been the third year in a row that they weren’t found at all on Duluth’s Christmas Bird Count.

The pattern of Christmas Bird Count data for all of Minnesota shows a very steep climb in Evening Grosbeak numbers peaking in the mid-60s. (Notice that the higest years, statewide, averaged about 5.25 EVGR per party hour.)

Why the rise in the middle, and why the drop? Did the population really increase in the 60s, or was the increase an artifact of the increasing numbers of birders and count circles in the northern third of the state during the 60s? It's impossible to know. I've talked to people in their 80s and 90s who grew up in Duluth and remember lots of grosbeaks throughout their childhoods. That's anecdotal, though it may be significant in light of the absence of better data. But the rise and fall could also be due to the decades-long but irregular cycles of spruce budworm populations, a major component of the diet fed to nestlings. All we know for certain is that the decrease since the 80s is real, and has been found throughout both the United States (first graph) and Canada (second graph).



These Christmas Bird Count graphs show an intriguing biennial rhythm, probably due to the cyclical nature of the seeds grosbeaks feed on. Evening Grosbeaks were not known in the Eastern states until the late 1800s; their sudden appearance there may have been due to ornamental tree plantings (box elder wasn't native to the East), the increase in popularity of bird feeding, or unknown factors.

Data from the Breeding Bird Survey extends back only as far as 1966. The same biennial rhythm is evident, and the sad decline is quite clear, both in Minnesota (first graph) and throughout Canada (second graph):BBS_MN


We don't know if the huge drop in numbers was part of an extremely long cycle (perhaps related to spruce budworm outbreaks), if it was a simple matter of returning to a "normal" level after an unexplained but brief population surge, or if this really has been a catastrophic loss. Several factors may have contributed to the drop:

  • Evening Grosbeaks feed their nestlings insects, including (possibly preferentially in some places) spruce budworm. Controlling spruce budworm has been an important forestry goal for many decades, with heavy use of pesticides over enormous swaths of northern forest. One of the pesticides currently used is Bacillus thuringiensis, which isn't known to harm birds, but regardless of the pesticide used, the loss of larval insects during the nesting season may well be implicated. 
  • Adult and young Evening Grosbeaks feed heavily on maple and, especially, box elder seeds. In recent decades, forest management in huge swaths of northern forests has focused on fast-growing softwood trees for paper and wood products rather than on slower-growing hardwoods such as maple and box elder. This may have reduced another important food source.
  • Exploitation of "tar sands" has also been implicated in the loss of huge swaths of Canadian forest habitat.
  • Large numbers of Evening Grosbeaks are killed by cars during winter, when they are drawn to roads to pick up road salt and grit. In a single incident reported in 1981, over 2,000 Evening Grosbeaks were killed along a 16-km stretch of a British Columbia road, with many more dead birds seen off the road that weren't counted (Smith, W. G. 1981. Observations on a large highway kill of Evening Grosbeaks in British Columbia. Syesis 14:163.)
  • Evening Grosbeaks are killed in much larger than average numbers at windows. Klem in 1989 listed them as the tenth-most frequently reported species killed by collision with building windows. 

What can we do individually and collectively to protect Evening Grosbeaks?

  • Those of us who are lucky enough to get them in our backyards should do everything we can to make our windows bird-safe. The American Bird Conservancy now sells a tape that, applied to the outside of windows, makes them more visible to birds. This tape is predicted to last for about four years. (ABC Bird Tape.)
  • Driving at the slowest speed that is safe, courteous, and convenient allows us to react more quickly when wildlife is present, and gives birds a better chance of avoiding our car. This at least helps minimize our contribution to the huge numbers of birds killed on highways. (It also saves natural resources!)
  • Reducing our use of paper, purchasing recycled paper whenever possible, and recycling rather than discarding paper reduces our personal complicity with the forestry practices most harmful to Evening Grosbeaks. 
  • Conserving energy reduces our personal complicity with fossil-fuel extraction that destroys habitat.
  • Encouraging and supporting research about Evening Grosbeaks, including filling gaps in life history information, will shed more light on what the species' needs are and what may have caused its decline. Knowing whether the drop in numbers is part of a natural cycle, a simple population blip, or a grave conservation issue will be a critical first step if action is to be taken under state or federal endangered species regulations. Membership and contributions to state and regional birding and ornithological societies and to research and conservation organizations (such as the American Bird Conservancy, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and Audubon) can help make a difference.
  • If you've kept records of numbers and locations over the years, going back through your notes on Evening Grosbeaks and posting the information on eBird will provide valuable data. If you have older birding friends who kept a detailed field notebook during earlier decades, ask them to allow you to post their data on eBird.

By the late 90s, Evening Grosbeaks completely disappeared from my Duluth yard. On a handful of occasions since then, I've had one or, at most, two birds visit for a few minutes and move on, and never more than a single visit per year. Then, this past August, for the first time since the mid-90s, an actual flock of grosbeaks, 16 birds including adult pairs feeding fledglings, showed up and were present every day for six weeks. Much of the time they fed on seeds or loafed in my box elders, but part of the time they visited my feeders and bird bath. I woke to their calls every morning and could hear their comfortable chattering throughout each day. They vanished in mid-September, and I haven't had one in my yard since. But hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul; even as I do my best to follow my own conservation advice, I'll keep hope alive that this splendid bird's disappearance is just a temporary blip.


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Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson has been in love with birds since she was a small child. She started birding after she received binoculars and a field guide for Christmas in 1974. Since then, her philosophy of life has been that “no one should go through life listlessly,” and she’s devoted herself to promoting the love, understanding, and protection of birds. She’s served as science editor at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, rehabbed wild birds for over two decades, written five books about birds, contributed to Audubon, Birding, and BirdWatching magazine, and for the past 25 years has produced, as an unpaid volunteer for several community radio stations, a daily radio spot about birds podcast at Laura lives with an Eastern Screech-Owl licensed for education as well as her amazingly tolerant non-birder husband.
  • ms

    Other bird varieties that nested every year in our yard in east Duluth while I was growing up (1960-1975) were tree swallows and morning doves. I rarely see them around and I live only about 1 city block from where I lived growing up.

  • Yes. When we moved here in 1981, we had Tree Swallows, Red-eyed Vireos, Yellow Warblers, a pair of Ovenbirds, and Brown Thrashers nesting in my yard or adjacent ones (there’s a small tract of woods right behind my yard). Those have vanished. But we have a few pairs of Mourning Doves nesting here.

  • Ted Floyd

    Just a quick note here to let folks know that additional coverage of the Evening Grosbeak’s decline is to be found in Paul Hess’s “News and Notes” in the March 2009 issue of Birding.

    Here’s a PDF:

    (The Evening Grosbeak item is #3, following “Eskimo Curlew Revisited” and “Finding Worthen’s Sparrow.” It appears on p. 28 of the PDF.)

  • The article Ted links to is based on a study of Project FeederWatch. That’s really valuable, but the data analysis is limited to two recent periods rather than the longer view afforded by the Christmas Bird Count and Breeding Bird Survey. Either way, we just don’t have enough data to figure out whether the species really does have huge cyclic population swings or not.

    This is important, because there is always a huge push to keep any species from getting protection as a threatened or endangered species, and the obvious argument opponents would latch onto is that the Evening Grosbeak’s population can’t be shown to have declined lower than before the big surge in the 60s. I’m hoping we could figure out a way of establishing what their numbers were historically, but it’s going to be very tricky. I think the precipitous decline makes the bird worthy of special research and protection, but the Sage Grouse declined just as dramatically between the 60s and the 80s, has never rebounded, and they’re still not getting the level of protection they have been proven to need. So I’m not hopeful of any real concerted effort on behalf of Evening Grosbeaks.

    I like that the article considered climate change as one of the issues, but I don’t think anyone has established any current effects from it.

  • I live in Southern New Jersey, and always looked foward to seeing Evening Grosbeaks in the winter. This was up until the 70s,then they Disappeared. Our winters here have become milder, and I have wondered since if this might be the reason. Such Beautiful Birds!

  • Climate change may be part of it, but their numbers throughout Canada have dropped significantly, too, and much more rapidly than those of other plants and animals impacted by warming. I think climate issues for Evening Grosbeaks are more long-term, related to the possible recoveries of their numbers, than impacting what the numbers are right now. But yes, it’s just one more of several things that may have contributed to this devastating decline.

  • ppstaff

    FYI: Theres a whole truckload of these birds in my yard at the moment. They have been here regularly for the last couple months, in numbers up to 30 or so. They seem to have an affinity for flying into windows, so I gotta address that problem.

  • ppstaff

    oyea. I suppose my location might help.

    SE Kent, Washington State.

  • Yes–this year we seem to be having an influx of them. It’s hard to say whether breeding conditions this year were exceptionally good or if more are moving south this winter than have been in recent years, but it’s a very happy situation.

    And sadly, they are one of the birds most vulnerable to window strikes. I wrote a whole page about things we can do to minimize the danger on my personal website here:

  • Beverly

    We,’ve been seeing our b e loved broadband in the Sierra Nevadas, about 50 me of Reno, NV since 2009, but not at all yet this year. Usually show up in huge flicks, 40 – 50, 1/2 that last year, 2013. Usually here even with snow on the ground in March. They stay at least a month in our pine cheat forest with a meadow nearby. We offer bird bath & water & sunflower seeds. Too many window crashes prompted me to apply an X with tape on every window. Seemed to help. Didn’t know about bird tape.

    But, as I began this, no sightings and its March 24th. I’m missing them, their colorful plumage & sweet song & chatter. Oh my, maybe they got delayed. It’s been a warm winter, last two years it snowed less & less. Got snow, a foot in December, lasted a month, Ben green ever since even in the 60s, unbelievable compared to the winters of ’09-10 & ’10-11with 6-8’of snow.

  • Beverly


    • Beverly

      Just joined the discussion in the previous blog but didn’t properly edit my blog which I composed on my Kindle which chooses it’s own words when it doesn’t recognize words like Grosbeaks. So sorry folks. Our forest is mostly pine & cedar. We live about 50 miles nw of Reno at 5000′.used to see huge flocks of Grosbeaks.

  • ichneumon

    devil’s advocate position here, but why be concerned?

    Fact: there was a time before their commonness (in the east, at least) and now they are collapsing again to levels they once built up from.

    This seems like an example of a shifting baseline (an extremely important concept in conservation and restoration) – the reference point for people now is 20-30 years ago, not 50-60 or longer. Our grandparents and great-grandparents may not have seen an Evening Grosbeak in the east until middle age – their baseline is that they *should* be a rare bird! And the young birders now know them as a rare bird as well – that is their baseline (they may know Snowy Owls and Northern Lapwings as annual birds, depending on when they started birding, for an extreme example of a baseline).

    The Bonter and Harvey example in the link has a specific baseline – they compared two time periods 1989-1994 and 2001-2006 and found a decrease. Had they chosen 1929-1934 they may not have found that (I’m not going to say it was bad science: they document a true trend, but there are some problems with just using two time points! [n.b. they used data that didn’t exist before 1988 – feederwatch]).

    Obviously, that is not to say disregard those extremely practical measures set forth here – by all means follow them to the T – for the good of many birds and other organisms. Especially the last one – there are many people, probably in their late 70’s and 80’s that watched the numbers build up! They may have notebooks, or perhaps even memories of in what year they saw their first one… Those data – on grosbeaks and other birds – are literally invaluable and fortunately, many people are getting those into eBird or otherwise publicized.

    Certainly a boreal forest specialist, like the evening grosbeak, is going to be suffering as we warm up its forests, but why panic about them (yet)? i’m going to save all my bird-worrying for the galveston oil spill, right now!

    • Laura Erickson

      I’m actually trying to collect baseline information, but that’s a wee bit tricky. TS Roberts The Birds of Minnesota account of Evening Grosbeaks makes it clear they were regular species up here as far back as his information went–publication of the second edition was in 1936, and says there is conclusive information that they breed in coniferous forests throughout northern Minnesota, and says that “locally, as at Brainerd, it is present in considerable numbers every winter.” But it is, of course, impossible to compare actual data collected using modern protocols with data collected before any of our modern surveys started.

  • Somebody Else

    For 30 years I have always seen grosbeaks at my feeder in May and June. Some years in the hundreds. They love sunflower seeds. This year I have not seen a single one. I am in Western Oregon. At least I still have common, black headed grosbeaks that have a wonderful song.

  • Ed LeGrand

    I’ve seen no mention of the possibility of an infectious disease as a possible cause of the decline (as a veterinary pathologist, it’s easy to imagine hard-to-detect possibilities). Countering the possibility of a species-specific disease affecting Evening Grosbeaks is the overall decline in winter finch irruptions of the late 1960s and early 1970s. I was in Raleigh, NC at the time, and it wasn’t unusual to get 50+ Evening Grosbeaks at a feeder (everyone wanted the first few every season, then referred to them as feeder rats after that). But it wasn’t just grosbeaks; it was Pine Siskins (flocks on the lawns and road shoulders) and Purple Finches, too. My first House Finch involved sorting through 20-30 Purple Finches at a feeder (about 1969). Yes, siskins and Purple Finches are still around, but not like they were during the finch years in “days of old”. Wonder what happened.

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