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Feathered Friends – Evening grosbeaks staging comeback

By Bryan Stevens

I’ve a feeling that when we look back on the year 2020, we’re not going to have an abundance of happy memories. Fortunately, I have birds and birding to keep me sane during a year of often dismal news. If nothing else, I will always remember 2020 as the year the evening grosbeaks returned to the region after a 20-year absence.

Evening grosbeaks are large, gregarious, noisy, showy members of the finch family, which includes several more commonplace feeder visitors as house finches, American goldfinches, pine siskins, and purple finches. During the 1980s and 1990s, flocks of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of these birds descended on feeders in the region. I knew a man in the Piney Grove community of Hampton, Tennessee, who converted the metal lids of trash cans into makeshift feeders arranged around his deck to accommodate a flock of more than 100 evening grosbeaks.

Then, like a switch being flipped, the great flocks of grosbeaks ceased winter visits to the region after 2000. Birders needed a few years to realize that this bird was no longer to be expected as a fixture of the season. Different theories, none ever confirmed, were put forward to explain the sudden absence.

As years went on, I always held out hope at the start of the winter season that this could be the year they returned, only to be perennially disappointed. Then, in 2020, a year when I could hardly be blamed for anticipating a positive happening, I began to hear reports.

Flocks of evening grosbeaks were spotted in Virginia, North Carolina, and even farther afield in different parts of the Volunteer State. I dared to hope they would make it back to Northeast Tennessee. I even dreamed this might be the year I’d get them back at my feeders.

On Saturday, Nov. 14, Judi Sawyer in Roan Mountain, Tennessee, posted on her Facebook page that a single evening grosbeak had visited her feeders. “Unfortunately, it flew away when I reached for my camera,” Judi said.

On Friday, Nov. 27, I received an email from Barbara Lake in Hampton, Tennessee. “I’m pretty sure we have a flock of evening grosbeaks visiting us,” Barbara wrote in her email.  “They are definitely in the cardinal/grosbeak family.”

Barbara added that she and her husband, Jerry, had never before seen evening grosbeaks at their home.  “The colors remind me of the American goldfinch, but they’re bigger with a cardinal-type beak.”

She gave such an apt description that I really didn’t need to confirm her observation, but she helpfully provided a photograph of a couple of the grosbeaks at her feeder. “Are they just passing through, like the rose-breasted grosbeaks do?” Barbara asked.

In answer to Barbara’s question, the intent of this influx of evening grosbeaks is still to be determined. The Lakes live atop a high hill that provides a great lookout over the surrounding terrain. “Your home on the hill is probably a beacon for migrating birds,” I informed Barbara in a reply to her email.

Friends Brookie and Jean Potter announced the arrival of grosbeaks at their home near Wilbur Lake in Elizabethton, Tennessee, on Jean’s Facebook page on Dec. 3.  “Five evening grosbeaks paid us a surprise visit this morning,” Jean wrote on her post.  “We’re ecstatic! This is life bird No. 461 for us and we were able to host it in our backyard.”

Jean also noted that the winter of 2020-21 is turning out to be an irruption year for some species of birds more often associated with Canada and the northern parts of the United States. These irruptive migrations, she noted, are motivated by a scarce food supply for some northern birds, resulting in them coming south.

The small flock visited for only the afternoon, but the next day a single grosbeak returned and fed briefly at the feeders at the Potter home.

I’ve only been feeding birds since the winter of 1993, so I started in time to enjoy the evening grosbeak boom of the 1990s. Over the years, an incredible diversity of species have visited my feeders. This winter season has already seen a drive south by several so-called winter finches, including pine siskin, common redpoll, red crossbills, and purple finches. Although not a finch, red-breasted nuthatches have been prevalent at feeders throughout the region for the past couple of months.  Back in October, pine siskins and purple finches began to visit my feeders. Their visits have since diminished considerably. I had hoped the recent snowfall might motivate them to return, but it didn’t happen.

I’ve never seen a common redpoll, although I spent several hours 20 years ago staking out a yard in Shady Valley, Tennessee, in an unsuccessful bid to observe a redpoll that had been a reliable visitor at a feeder in that small community. I have seen red crossbills, but my observations of these birds have always taken place during the summer months near Carver’s Gap in Roan Mountain and the Unaka Mountain in Unicoi County.

So, as the weather turns cold each year, hope springs eternal that perhaps this will be the winter that will bring some of these northern finches to my feeders, or at least to a feeder in the general area.

I am still waiting for an evening grosbeak to return to my home. I am happy reminiscing about the flocks of dozens of individuals that gathered at my feeders in the ’90s.

The evening grosbeak belongs to the genus Coccothraustes in the finch family. There are only two other species in the genus: the hawfinch of Europe and temperate Asia and the hooded grosbeak of Central America.

One word of advice in case evening grosbeaks show up at your own feeders: These are some of the most fun visitors you will ever host, but they have huge appetites. Be prepared to earmark more of your budget for purchasing sunflower seed, which is a favorite food of these always-hungry birds.