Friday, March 8, 2013

Setting Free the Evening Grosbeak

Evening Grosbeak
Adult male Evening Grosbeak (photo from August 2011)
On January 14, someone brought an adult male Evening Grosbeak to the Wildwoods Rehabilitation Center in Duluth. His beak was injured, soft tissue in his right wing was damaged, and his crop was torn so that when he ate, the seeds came out through the hole. Apparently the poor bird had tangled with an attacker, though probably not a cat. Evening Grosbeaks are one of the most vulnerable species to window strikes, and it’s possible this one hit a window and while it was dazed, a squirrel, jay, or other opportunistic animal got it, or it’s possible that it escaped after a hawk or shrike attack.

The people at Wildwoods cleaned out the grosbeak’s wounds, gave him antibiotics and subcutaneous fluids, immobilized his injured wing, and found him a ride down to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota, in Roseville. There he underwent surgery to fix his crop. He wasn’t easy to deal with. Evening Grosbeaks have powerful beaks and are quick to use them in self-defense. Whenever he needed to be handled to treat any of his injuries or rewrap bandages, he’d bite, which would reinjure his beak again.

He was healed and ready to go by last weekend, so they sent him back north for release. By then, the person who brought him in was no longer getting grosbeaks at her feeder. Evening Grosbeaks are extremely sociable birds, seldom seen as individuals, so Wildwoods knew it would be better for the bird if they released it where other grosbeaks were rather than back where he came from. They put out the call on Facebook looking for anyone who had a feeder where grosbeaks were visiting. Unfortunately, even in the few places they were appearing through the winter, they’ve pretty much disappeared. Fortunately, there were still a handful hanging out at a popular feeding station in the Sax-Zim Bog, so on Wednesday, I drove out there with the bird to release him.

Grosbeaks aren’t reliable even in the bog anymore. I waited for almost an hour without hearing a single one. I wanted to release the bird early enough in the day that he’d have plenty of time to adjust to freedom again, especially because Evening Grosbeaks tend to start roosting in mid- or even early afternoon, so finally I played some Evening Grosbeak calls on my iPhone. The bird in the box in my car responded before those in the wild did, but finally I called in two or three and opened the box. The grosbeak instantly flew off into the trees toward them. I wanted to take some happy photos, but he was hardly going to sit out where I could see him—I’m sure the poor guy had had enough of people to last a lifetime. Fortunately, even if he didn’t realize it, his lifetime was going to last a lot longer thanks to a few good people.

Evening Grosbeaks were once abundant up here, seen in Duluth backyards year-round, and even more abundant in wilder parts of the North Woods. But they’ve declined dramatically. I had a small flock in my own yard in August and September 2011, but none since, and I’d gone several years without them before that, too. As Minnesota and Wisconsin reconsider the species designated endangered or threatened, I wish they’d add Evening Grosbeaks, because the decline is troubling, the reasons behind it elusive, and research is needed to reverse the trend. 

Saving one bird at a time isn’t an effective way to restore populations, but each Evening Grosbeak is a valuable individual in its own right as well as an increasingly significant fraction of the total population. The joy I felt sending this one off was intensified by his focus on getting away. Wildwoods Rehabilitation Center restored him to health, and he’ll live out his days in the wild woods where he belongs.