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What Happened to the Grosbeaks?

Dear Bird Folks:

Years ago, around 1975, tons of Evening Grosbeaks would come to our winter feeding stations. They came for years and then one winter they didn’t return and haven’t been back since. Any ideas what happened to them? I kind of miss them.

– Cliff, Brewster


Hey Cliffy,

If you miss them, how do you think I feel? I sell birdseed. An Evening Grosbeak can eat more in a single day than a blue whale can eat in a month. At least that’s the way that I remember it, but don’t forget it was the ’70s. I spent most of the ’70s just trying to pass the 6th grade, so I may be wrong about the whale thing.

Some people may not know much about Evening Grosbeaks, but 25 years ago they were a common winter visitor. And man, could those bad boys eat. A flock of grosbeaks could strip a feeder clean in minutes. They made grackles and blue jays seem anorexic. Evening Grosbeaks are more like flying piranhas than birds, but still most people liked them, especially me. They are handsome birds, with the body of a cardinal and the colors of a goldfinch. More times than not, they travel in noisy flocks, making spectacular and colorful assaults on our feeders.

Evening Grosbeaks are not true migrators. They breed in the northern United States or in southern Canada and are content to spend most of the winter near their nesting grounds. However, if the winter natural food supply runs low, they will happily pack up and head south looking for food.

But why have they stopped coming? Many scientists think it was disco music that drove them away, and they may be right. But others feel the arrival of our Evening Grosbeaks is related to an outbreak of “spruce bud worms.” Spruce bud worms are troublesome little worms that have been credited with killing thousands of acres of spruce trees in northern New England and eastern Canada. As you can understand, some people have taken an attitude toward the spruce bud worm, but the Evening Grosbeaks love them. These nasty little worms helped cause a boom in the population of grosbeaks; a population that grew so large that it would quickly exhaust the natural supply of winter food. So winter after winter grosbeaks headed south looking for more food, and Cape Cod was one place they found it. But spruce bud worm outbreaks run in cycles and in recent years there have been fewer bud worms and thus fewer grosbeaks.

For almost a decade Evening Grosbeaks were as much a part of the winter landscape on Cape Cod as speed traps are on a part of Route 6. But then, just like you said, sometime in the early 80’s grosbeaks became scarce around here. At first no one was too surprised, we simply thought that they would return the following year. But it has been almost 20 years and we are still thinking, maybe next year. Yet every year we are once again disappointed. It’s like being a Red Sox fan. Yeah Cliff, I miss them too. But hey, who knows? Perhaps this will be the year they will return. Maybe you should buy an extra 20 tons of sunflower seed, just in case. I won’t stop you.