Early indications suggest that we may be in for it this winter. “It” doesn’t refer to the weather, however; instead, it refers to the birds. This looks to be an “irruption” season.

Don’t let the fancy words frighten you. It’s bird talk for an influx of particular species of birds, in this case northern finches. A number of species of finches that nest north of us, in the Canadian forests, show up here every year. Some years bring more species, and some years bring more birds of a particular species. This year seems to have brought both.

The best evidence is reports of evening grosbeaks. The evening grosbeak is an unmistakable bird, conspicuous for a large white patch in the wing visible in all seasons both in flight and at rest. Then there’s the enormous beak entirely befitting the bird’s common name, grosbeak.

A number of other species have this name, too. The rose-breasted grosbeak is a familiar nesting species in our area, and the pine grosbeak is a frequent winter visitor that shows up almost every winter. The blue grosbeak is an occasional, more localized breeding bird in eastern North Dakota.

None of this is true of the evening grosbeak. Although nesting occurs quite close to the Red River Valley, both to the east and north, our immediate area just doesn’t provide the habitat that nesting evening grosbeaks seek.

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Evening grosbeaks depend heavily on conifer seeds. When the cone crop fails, the birds begin wandering in search of food, and that is what brings them to us.

Reports of grosbeaks have come from Grand Forks, where several observers noted flocks of six or seven individuals. From Oslo, Minn., came a report of 50 evening grosbeaks mobbing a farmyard feeder.

Grosbeaks are known to migrate in large flocks, so 50 individuals in a group is entirely believable, though they are more usual farther east. My experience here is with flocks of fewer than 10 grosbeaks. At the same time, I don’t recall ever seeing a single grosbeak all by its lonesome self. They are gregarious birds, and sustaining a flock takes a considerable supply of food.

The grosbeaks are not alone in this year’s irruption. White-winged crossbills have been reported, too. I’ve kept my eyes open for both of these species, and I’ve spent some time combing my evergreen stand for crossbills, especially. Both red and white-winged crossbills have occurred there.

Yet so far, I have been skunked.

The bird irruption at my place west of Gilby, N.D., is of pine siskins, another nesting bird of the North Woods. I glanced out the window a few minutes ago. There must have been 30 siskins crowding the feeders taking both thistle and black oil seed sunflower. At least as many were gorging themselves on seeds that I’d spilled on the driveway.

Unlike the blue jays that I wrote about last week, the siskins are quarrelsome. Pecking between birds is common. It almost never occurs among blue jays. Yet every siskin vanishes when a blue jay appears. Size matters in the bird world, and blue jays are very much larger than siskins, which are among the smallest North American birds.

Evening grosbeaks, on the other hand, can hold their own against blue jays. They are roughly the same size, and grosbeaks are solidly built, Field guides often use the word “stocky” to describe evening grosbeaks, and the adjective is entirely appropriate. The grosbeak has some bulk to it.

The outstanding feature, nevertheless, is the beak itself. It’s adapted for cracking nuts and seeds, and the scientific name of the genus including the evening grosbeaks essentially means “cracker.”

The specific name is misleading, however. It reflects Henry Schoolcraft’s belief that the grosbeak sang in the evening, at vespers, the American Ornithologists’ Union monograph on the species reports. Schoolcraft’s name will be familiar; he’s credited with finding the source of the Mississippi River, Schoolcraft Lake in Itasca State Park, which includes the river’s headwaters.

Evening grosbeaks don’t sing only in the evening. In fact, they are not known as songsters. The monograph states this pretty emphatically: “The loud, unmusical calls that announce the arrival of a feeding flock of evening grosbeaks in winter are distinctive and unmistakable and these sounds seem to serve most of the species’ communications needs during the breeding season, as well.”

At least one other northern finch has made an appearance, however brief. I had a purple finch at my feeders early last week.

So far, no redpolls at all, and these are often the most numerous of the “irruptive winter finches” in our area. I’ve heard only one report thus far this season.

No snowy owls yet, either. And only one rough-legged hawk. Both of these species are iconic of November in the Red River Valley. Both are live hunters – predators, in other words.

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Perhaps prey is more abundant than cones in the North this season. That changes the nature of irruptions around here.

Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs