It's a New Day

October 2019

Vol. 47, No. 5

Evening Grosbeaks: Winter Jewels of My Childhood

Melinda S. LaBranche

Evening Grosbeak. Photograph by Sandy Selesky.

Growing up in Grafton, Massachusetts, we had a huge red maple in our backyard. During winter (perhaps all of them as in my memories, but likely just one) we had day after day of enormous flocks of Evening Grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) that seemed to fill that tree. I know we all tried to count them and I recall that I managed to tally at least 100. This is my first memory of counting birds, still a family passion and a lifelong pursuit for me. The winter of 2019 was the first time that I was graced with their presence in Rochester, Massachusetts, from mid-January to May 14. I spent hours avoiding my grading, copyediting, and doing dishes to watch these spectacular birds, numbering 20 to 40 individuals, so uniquely garbed that I thought I was able to distinguish a few individuals from all the rest.

Evening Grosbeaks, large finches with relatively short tails and big honkin' beaks, were described by Forbush (1929) as "Catbird size but stouter" with bill "sparrow-like, but enormous for size of bird, much larger than that of Pine Grosbeak…" Henry Rowe Schoolcraft sent the type specimen to William Cooper of the Lyceum of Natural History of New York, using the Chippewa name Pashcundamo (or Paushkundamo) meaning berry-breaker (Farrand 1992). And Harrison (2001) notes that birdbanders handling Evening Grosbeaks wear gloves or risk blood flow. Having banded several other finch species, although not Evening Grosbeak, I think I'd still be a bit more wary of a woodpecker's bill.

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