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A Winter Wonder

Evening grosbeaks visit the Sandhills

By Susan Campbell

Evening grosbeaks are a most unexpected surprise in North Carolina during the winter months. Last month I made a similar claim about purple finches, explaining that food shortages further north would bring these raspberry-colored songbirds our way in numbers over the coming months. In fact, much to my delight, that has already happened at our feeders in Apex. But evening grosbeaks, which could be found reliably here in our state every few years, are nowhere as numerous as they were just a couple of decades ago. Therefore, they are far less likely to appear even when seed resources plummet across southern Canada and the northern United States.

Evening grosbeaks are robin-sized birds with a distinctive heavy white bill and varying amounts of yellow feathering, depending on the bird’s age and sex. All individuals have white and black wings as well as a gray crown and nape. Adult males with their yellow eyebrows and bellies are hard to miss. Immatures as well as adult females are more muted, having limited yellow feathering above with gray underparts.

Being larger, grosbeaks’ songs and calls can carry a good distance. Furthermore, they are almost always found in flocks during the colder months. So they are likely to vocalize a good bit throughout the day. You may be startled by the cacophony of warbling songs or hear their buzzy chips as they keep track of one another.

These big birds have a broad diet. As with most songbirds, evening grosbeaks feed heavily on insects and insect larvae during the spring and summer. But beginning in early fall they seek out berries, not as much for the fruit but for the seeds contained within. With their large bill and strong tongue, they can easily manipulate these sizable morsels to get at the protein in the middle. During the colder weather they can be found foraging on seeds from maple, ash, tulip poplar and pine. It is likely that a combination of a better-than-average breeding season with a poor mast crop is causing their winter range expansion. Individuals and small groups have already been spotted in our state — all the way to the coast. I was startled to hear one calling a couple weeks ago from high in the forest along the creek at Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve in Southern Pines. And I expect it is not the only encounter I will have this season.

Laying out the welcome mat for these handsome birds is not complicated. Of course, your odds of attracting evening grosbeaks are better if you have the native vegetation they favor. Commonly cultivated apples, cherries and Russian olives will also get their attention. Feeding stations with sunflower seeds will be a draw, of course — especially if the seeds are hulled. Additionally, they will consume peanuts and other larger nuts like pecans and even walnut pieces.

Given the size of a grosbeak, you can imagine that the amount of seed they consume on a winter’s day is not insignificant. But folks lucky enough to host them are usually willing to provide as much seed as the birds will eat. Paying the price for such special guests is worth the investment, especially if you are a Southern birdwatcher who likely will only have such an incredible opportunity once in a lifetime.  PS

Susan Campbell would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photographs at