On May 1, 1976, I saw my very first Evening Grosbeak—my lifer—on a Michigan Audubon field trip to Hartwick Pines State Park. Later that same month, I saw more at Point Pelee in Ontario, and in the fall, Russ and I went up to Port Wing, Wisconsin, where I saw even more—they were an everyday occurrence at virtually every feeder there.
We lived in Madison, Wisconsin, for 4 ½ years, and I saw a few Evening Grosbeaks just about every winter. When they turned up at a feeder, everyone would come gawk at the lovely birds. And it was virtually always that plural—birds. Evening Grosbeaks seldom wandered alone. I knew 1981 would be the last New Year’s Day we’d be in Madison, so I spent that day at my favorite spot, Picnic Point—a lovely bit of habitat on Lake Mendota belonging to the University of Wisconsin. That final New Year’s Day down there, I finally added Evening Grosbeak to my Picnic Point list.
We moved to Duluth in 1981, and when we moved into our house on Peabody Street that summer and were lugging in boxes from the moving van, the first bird I saw was a Bald Eagle overhead, and the first birds I heard as it passed over were Evening Grosbeaks—they were also the first birds to show up at our new feeder. I knew I’d love living here.
Our first baby was born that fall, and when I carried him to the window for the first time, Evening Grosbeaks filled the feeders. Their friendly chatter filled the house year-round for more than a decade, even when windows were tightly closed in winter. When I strolled through the neighborhood with Katie in the stroller, Tommy bundled against me in a baby carrier, and Joey toddling along beside me, the comfortable sounds of Evening Grosbeaks filled the air. When I was in excruciating pain following abdominal surgery, their cheery calls were all the encouragement I needed to get up and walk to the window—my recovery went quicker thanks to them. Evening Grosbeaks were a constant and essential part of the fabric of our lives during those joyful years.
Evening Grosbeak numbers started dwindling in the early 90s, and by the mid-90s they’d all but disappeared. We’d still see them during migration and in winter, but in much smaller numbers. By the turn of the century they’d become as rare in Duluth as they’d once been down in Madison. Flocks never visited our yard anymore—just one or two individuals every few years. Then last summer Russ was diagnosed with cancer and had surgery on August first. He came home from the hospital on the third, still in a lot of pain, and that night we slept fitfully. But we awoke in the morning to a sound we hadn’t heard in decades—Evening Grosbeaks in our yard! The group of 16 included small families, adults still feeding juveniles. They spent most of the time in our trees, munching on box elder seeds, but also came to the feeders and birdbath. There weren’t hundreds as there’d been in the 80s, but this flock gave us a brighter, more hopeful outlook, carrying us from one of the hardest times of our lives back to the happiest. They remained in our yard throughout Russ’s recovery, an almost constant presence throughout the entire 6 weeks until he got a clean bill of health.
Birds are such critical components of our environment and such important ecological indicators of environmental health that when a species declines, we can’t help but focus on scientific research documenting the decline and the politics of species protection. It’s easy to forget how deeply these birds touch our lives in uniquely personal ways. I haven’t seen another Evening Grosbeak in my neighborhood since last August. Their decline is scary and ominous as far as what it means regarding the state of our planet. But it’s also a loss of deeply-felt human dimensions. When people say environmentalists care more about animals than they do about human beings, I suspect they’ve lost sight of what exactly it means to be a human being.