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Blane Klemek: Here come the grosbeaks! Latest bird irruption is underway

evening grosbeak pair.jpg
A pair of evening grosbeaks (female at left, male at right) photographed in Oregon. Look for them in Minnesota this season as part of an ongoing irruption. (Flickr photo by Martyne Reesman, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife)
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One recent late afternoon while enjoying some time outside in my backyard, I heard the vocalizations of a familiar bird, actually a lot of birds. The loud calls, warbles, and noisy chirping reminded me of a flock of house sparrows, but I knew instantly what I was really listening to — evening grosbeaks.

Admittedly, I don’t live in prime evening grosbeak habitat, but it has been many years since I last saw a flock of these beautiful birds at my feeders. “Welcome back!” I mumbled under my breath while watching the clamoring, hungry birds jostling over spots at the feeder.

Since my observation, I’ve received several reports from other birdwatchers here in the northland about evening grosbeaks showing up at their feeders, too.

Indeed, the predicted evening grosbeak irruption is well underway.

Featured in an article printed on the Finch Research Network website titled, “Irruption Alert: Evening Grosbeaks are moving in largest numbers in 20-plus years” by Tyler Hoar and Matthew Young, e-Bird alerts that began in September and October reported irruptions throughout Ontario and other eastern Provinces, and south throughout eastern United States all the way to Florida.

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The evening grosbeak irruption of 2020-21 has triggered e-Bird alerts in the Great Lakes states, too, including Minnesota.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch defines an irruption as, “... the sudden change in the population density of an organism.” Regarding birds, “... irruptions refer to the movement of northern-wintering species to the south in years of low food availability.” Some of the most obvious and frequent irruptive species of birds include redpolls, evening grosbeaks, and red-breasted nuthatches.

Another way to describe an avian irruption? A sudden surge of birds!

These irruptions or fluctuations, also known as “superflights,” are most always food-driven. During years when natural food sources are scarce in a region that a particular species of bird normally occupies on any given year, the same species may be found in large, concentrated numbers throughout another region the next year.

Some of you might remember one of the greatest and widespread irruptions that ever occurred in recent times with the influx of owls in the year 2004, specifically great gray owls and northern hawk owls. From fall throughout the winter, these owls could be observed nearly everywhere throughout northern Minnesota.

Typical of finches, evening grosbeaks enjoy the company of their conspecifics. Social, nomadic, and raucous, a flock of evening grosbeaks at your backyard bird feeding station will definitely be noticed. And so will your feeders. Evening grosbeaks can make short order of a supply of black-oil sunflower seeds. Their big and strong beaks enable them to crack large seeds effortlessly and efficiently. Not only is it fun to watch a flock of these birds feed, it’s doubly pleasing to listen to. With so many beaks cracking seeds, chirping vocalizations, and dazzling colors, it’s a spectacle you can hardly take your eyes off.

Evening grosbeaks are about seven to nine inches long from beak to tail. Their stout stature is accentuated by a disproportionately-sized bill and short tail. Yet despite their physique, it’s undoubtedly the species coloration that impresses us most.

Males are nearly unmistakable from other species of birds. Bright yellow foreheads and supercilium; yellow mantles and breasts; black crowns, wing-feathers, and tails; and white inner secondary wing-feathers and tertials sets them apart from all other birds. Females’ plumage is dominated by dull grays and browns, with some green and yellow about the nape and neck.

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Hopefully, more evening grosbeaks will be frequenting our feeders in the months to come. Though we can all probably agree with each other that observing this species of wild bird year in and year out would be our preference, having them come all at once, once in a while is wonderful, too, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

feamle grossbeak.jpg
This sturdy-looking female evening grosbeak has a large head, short tail, and massive conical bill adapted for seed eating. Many encounters with this species are of individuals heard flying high overhead, leaving the observer with little else to note. Look for them at Minnesota bird feeders this year. They love black oil sunflower seeds. (Flickr photo by Martyne Reesman, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife)

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