They are back! Well, in some places anyway.
The nocturnal grosbeaks are quite impressive in appearance and when they arrive at your food station, you notice them. Gregarious and quarrelsome, a bunch of these birds can provide amusing insight while disputing the perch space and who can get more sunflower seeds.
This is a species that has what birdwatchers call "winter irruptions" because in a few years these colorful birds are absent and in other years you can go to the brink of bankruptcy by buying sunflower seeds for them. And when the nocturnal grosbeaks appear, often accompanied are their cousins, the pinhacu-of-pine tree and a handful of smaller species of finches.
In the mid-1960s, our first backyard bird feeder in Orillia attracted these birds along with some blue jays and chickadees. I was 10 years old and upon seeing these brightly colored birds on the other side of the kitchen window, I was addicted to birdwatching.
For many years, it was the arrival of the nocturnal grosbeaks that became the highlight of winter.
However, within 30 years, these birds began to be scarce, with some winters being devoid of a single tail in any part of southern Ontario. What is up with that? This would become an example of scientific curiosity for many people, and the answer to the decline was disturbing.
But first, a little background on this bright yellow plumage bird.
The nocturnal grosbeaks are originally a western bird, with the Colorado River basin being its base. In the early 1800s, there are records that these birds are in large numbers, residing in the firs and pines of the region. For unknown reasons, they began an extension east of their reach.
According Simcoe County Birds book compiled by OE Devitt, the first local record of a nocturnal grosbeak was in Barrie on May 24, 1886. In 1890 they became a common sighting, with that year being observed as "the winter of the great incursion in southern Ontario and in the States of New England. "
One of the factors considered behind this arrival was the simultaneous introduction of a new species of tree from the Red River Valley, the Manitoba border.
In fact, there are two species of trees that the nocturnal grosbeak is closely connected, the Manitoba border for a supply of winter seeds, and the black spruce from northern Ontario to a summer nesting area. And here lies part of the response to the floating population of this bird.
From 1940 to 1970, an insect called a ptarmigan was rampant in northern Ontario, and these protein-rich insects fed many nocturnal grosbeaks.
Beginning in the 1980s, the forest industry started an extensive aerial spraying program to control these tree-eating insects, and it worked very well. Not only did the ptarmigan fall, but so did all the other insects in the forest. No food for the grosbeaks meant that very few young birds survived.
When the population of 1968 was compared with the population of 2015, there was a 97% reduction! Along with the loss of food came a few diseases that attacked finches, and the spread of salmonella, the West Nile, and the disease of the eyes of a purple finch ruined the weakened birds.
However, a small population of nocturnal grosbeaks has withstood, and as the ptarmigan recovers within its own 40-year cycle, there are now enough birds to be noticed again in our winter bird feeders.
However, in August 2018 (ahh … August … hot weather, sun … ops, I disagree) the Ontario Natural Resources and Forestry Ministry added the nocturnal flavor to its famous species at risk, as a special Concern due to very low population numbers.
As the effects of climate change set in, one of the tree species indicating that it can not maintain its current status is spruce. If the spruces die back or change their range, the insects that feed on them will be affected and the birds that eat the insects will be affected and the diversity of birds that spend the winter in Ontario will be affected. So maybe you do not have to buy so much bird seed. Hmm … that's not good.
If you are lucky this winter to see nocturnal grosbeaks, or pine grosbeaks, consider the larger picture. These birds are literally "the canary in the coal mine"; if they have to fight to survive, maybe our destiny is not far behind.