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Grosbeaks sure brighten up a wintertime yard

Outdoors Columnist Blane Klemek

While driving to work one recent morning as I listened to Minnesota Public Radio, sipping my coffee, and traveling along on the Great River Road National Scenic Byway (AKA Becida Road), a story about wild birds was aired that featured Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' Carrol Henderson as the program's guest.

It was fitting to be listening to a story about wild birds while driving adjacent to the Mississippi River. It's common for me to observe a dozen or more species of birds every day on my commute to and from work — sandhill cranes, wild turkeys, Canada geese and other waterfowl, black-billed magpies and crows and ravens, and many more species including scores of songbirds and a few raptors, too.

The topic of climate change was discussed on the radio program, and how climate has altered bird migration and local abundance. Mr. Henderson pointed out, for example, that, over time, northern cardinals and red-bellied woodpeckers have become more abundant in places further north where they never formerly occupied.

Conversely, other birds, such as evening grosbeaks and pine grosbeaks, have possibly moved further north from places in northern Minnesota where they were once more abundant. As I contemplated this statement and thought of a time not all that long ago, in the early 1990s, I observed flocks of evening grosbeaks at my feeders gorging themselves on black oil sunflower seeds during the wintertime.

Fast forward to today? I honestly cannot remember the last time I saw an evening grosbeak at my backyard feeding station. In fact the last time I saw an abundance of evening grosbeaks was in the Colorado Rockies, not Minnesota, just last October.

Appearing as overgrown finches, grosbeaks make up an interesting group of birds that are among my favorites. Two species of grosbeaks, the evening grosbeak and the pine grosbeak, belong to the family Frigillidae, while the other five North American grosbeaks — crimson-collared, yellow, black-headed, rose-breasted, and blue grosbeaks — are members of the family Cardinalidae, the same family that northern cardinals belong to.

The bills of grosbeaks tell us much about the types of foods these birds prefer. All grosbeaks are primarily seed eaters and their strong, oversized conical-shaped bills are specially designed to crack seeds. Still, grosbeaks will also feed on buds, fruits, small nuts, and insects.

Evening grosbeaks are perhaps the most colorful of the three species of grosbeaks occurring in Minnesota. The male's beautiful yellow, black, and white plumage contrasts sharply with the winter landscape. They really brighten up a backyard! Gregarious as they come, evening grosbeaks can deplete a supply of black-oil sunflower seeds in no time at all.

An irruptive species, otherwise known as those species occurring mostly north of the border but migrate elsewhere when food is scarce, evening grosbeaks are "irregularly common" here in Minnesota. Just as other irruptive species of birds like pine siskins, purple finches, and common redpolls do, evening grosbeaks come and go depending on the severity of the winters and the food supply further north. Some years you see'um, and some years you don't.

And when you do observe evening grosbeaks, they typically show up in large and raucous flocks. Their calls are constant and sparrow-like, so it isn't hard to identify their presence even before you actually see them.

Another Minnesota grosbeak, the striking-looking pine grosbeak, is a stocky bird about the size of an American robin. Males are mostly rosy red in color, like a rosy wine, with other parts colored grayish, pinkish, and black. White wing bars are diagnostic traits that you can also use for identification. And unlike the bills of other grosbeaks, the beaks of pine grosbeaks are shorter and are strongly curved — almost raptor-like in shape.

Like the evening grosbeak, pine grosbeaks are irruptive and highly social species too. Pine grosbeaks will often spend considerable time at feeding stations once arriving. Thus, plenty of viewing time is the reward for those lucky enough to attract pine grosbeaks.

I have been fortunate enough to have lived in areas where these two species of grosbeaks have made appearances. When I managed the Wetlands, Pines, and Prairie Audubon Sanctuary near Warren, Minnesota, a large flock of pine grosbeaks kept me company the entire winter of 2000.

It was a fairly mild winter, as winters go, and the birds were often at my feeders. I have also observed large flocks feeding on cedar berries or perched in the canopies of cottonwoods, singing. It was such a pleasure to hear singing birds in the middle of the snow and cold of wintertime.

As previously mentioned, evening grosbeaks were frequent guests at my bird feeders in the 1990s at my home southwest of Bemidji near the Becida community, too. And places that I continue to see plentiful evening grosbeaks tend to be further north such as throughout the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness and other places in northeast Minnesota, including the Arrowhead region of the state. Even so, I receive plenty of reports each winter from readers in northwest Minnesota that, despite my lack of grosbeaks, are relishing annual grosbeak abundance.

Distinctive, colorful, musical, and social, evening grosbeaks and pine grosbeaks are indeed birds that still reside here in the northwest part of the state, though maybe not as abundant as they once were.

A bird especially adapted to boreal forests, those Minnesotans lucky enough to find themselves living among their preferred habitats (or those birders willing to travel where they are!) will undoubtedly continue to observe these delightful birds as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.