Evening grosbeaks have made their triumphant return to Lincoln County. Traveling in flocks, these finches have arrived in numbers not seen in decades. I had seen pictures of their invasion on Facebook, but a reader also tipped me off recently. John Kierstead, of Jefferson, wrote to let me know that he had not seen this level of grosbeak activity since the late 1970s or early 1980s. A group of 15-20 had descended on his feeders, generously sampling the food provided.
So what are these striking mustard-yellow birds doing in our area? Primarily birds of the boreal forest, grosbeaks are here because of this year’s meager cone crop. With this important food source diminished, grosbeaks have flown south in large numbers. Such southward movements are known as irruptions. Unlike our year-round birds, evening grosbeaks will not stay forever. For the time being, your feeders are attracting these birds and may even encourage them to stay for a while.
Male evening grosbeaks are black and yellow. Females of the species are more subtle in color. Both sexes are robin-sized and sport large bills (perfect for seed-eating and cracking). Given their size, they seem to prefer eating sunflowers at tray or platform feeders. Evening grosbeaks also consume naturally available seeds, tree buds, fruits, and even maple sap. Gravel-eaters as well, grosbeaks get needed minerals and salt this way.
In Canada and Western states like Montana and Oregon, evening grosbeaks are year-round residents. The southern portion of the species’ range includes pine and oak forests in Mexico above 5,000 feet in elevation. In Maine, the northern reaches of the state host evening grosbeaks. For us, they are a rare, ephemeral visitor.
Leapfrogging across the state like a conquering army, evening grosbeaks are being tracked by the Maine Birds Facebook page. Recently, they have been reported as far afield as Kennebunk, Wells, Surry, Trenton, Madawaska Lake, and Amity. Locally, there was one post each from Dresden, Warren, and Vassalboro. However, outside of social media, they are being reported at feeders all over the area.
Pine siskins, another irruptive species, have also been in Lincoln County. I saw them at my feeders, and reports indicate they are eating their way through Maine as well. Also pushed south by a lack of conifer seeds, pine siskins look a little like goldfinches but have pronounced streaks. A previous irruption in 2018 led them to local feeders.
Evening grosbeaks will eat both black-oil sunflower seeds and suet. Outside of supplemental feeding, grosbeaks, like all birds, need areas that provide water, natural foods, and cover. To support this species, keep your feeders full and invite these colorful birds to your wildlife-friendly backyard.
Birds are struggling across North America. Their habitats are being destroyed. We poison our yards and kill them with our windows and cats. But there is hope. Sometimes, it comes in the form of a sunset-colored bird that crossed an international border to find a free meal and the eager people who feed and shelter them.