An Irruption of Grosbeaks

By Cindy Ellis

We have been longing to see them for years…and they’re back!  Those wildly handsome northern songbirds called Evening Grosbeaks have recently been seen this season in many parts of West Virginia.  Their bold coloring of gold, black, and white and their greedy behavior at feeders are unmistakable. 

It may be that “absence makes the heart grow fonder” and that seems true for these birds.  They have a history of visiting us somewhat routinely in winters long past, but that has not been true in the last thirty years.  Nor was it so before the mid-1940’s.  But from then, until the early 1980’s, Evening Grosbeaks regularly appeared in our state.  Dr. George A. Hall, in his book “West Virginia Birds” remarked on their biennial and then annual appearances in those decades.  He also commented on their feeding preferences; sunflower seeds at feeders, and the seeds of box elders, but he reported that the birds could also be found in higher elevation locations where those seeds were lacking.

Food is the reason we see them.  These birds breed in some western and northern states and in boreal Canada.  When food sources there are diminished, an “irruption” of birds from colder regions may make their way south.  Food in low numbers this year could include cone crops of spruce, aspen, ash and birch—these have been afflicted by spruce budworm.   

The movements of flocks of Evening Grosbeaks can be highly erratic.  As of the date of this writing—November 27—there had been observations of the birds in 33 West Virginia counties, beginning on October 26.  But some sightings have been of flocks of 50 to 80, while other reports have noted only 1 or 2 birds.  Hall noted that those birds that arrive early in September or October may then travel farther south. 

One interesting sidenote about these birds is in their name.  In the very early days of bird study, these were unknown to searchers here in the East.  Audubon never saw one.  So, later, when one happened to stray beyond the Mississippi, it was a novelty.  In the times before the availability of binoculars, the method of close study was to “collect” [shoot] the bird and make a specimen.  The young person who brought in this bird had happened to see it toward dusk.  An assumption was made—and thus the bird became “Evening” Grosbeak.  

Our current happy experience with the flashy visitors here in West Virginia was heralded by an influx of several other “northern” species, notably Pine Siskins.  Birders here become hopeful when siskins swarm the feeder.  “Maybe this will be an irruption year!” is what we wish.  Scores of us began seeing siskins as summer departed.  They even were observed migrating at night…something that is usual in other birds but not in them, and has only ever been recorded once before.

As for me, I’ve stepped over to the windows quite a few times while typing, but the flighty grosbeaks have not come to my county yet.  Meanwhile, birders like me are savoring the seasonal prospects.  We’re dreaming of Evening Grosbeaks and more!  Bring on the Crossbills and Red Polls!  We do most assuredly welcome all winter avian visitors to the Mountain State!