Ask Kenn: How Did the Evening Grosbeak Get Its Misleading Name?

In this month's Ask Kenn!, bird expert Kenn Kaufman shares the surprising origins of the finch's moniker. Plus, why your feeder birds fight so much.

Who's Kenn? Simply put, Kenn is a national treasure. A renowned birder, author, and conservationist, Kenn Kaufman has spent his life dedicated to observing birds, reading about birds, writing about birds, and sharing the world of birds with others. With all that birdy knowledge in his brain, he also acts as the field editor for Audubon magazine. So, whenever we have a bird question stumping us around the office, we just ask Kenn. And now you can, too! If you have a bird or birding question you'd like Kenn to answer, leave them in the comments below or on Facebook. Maybe next month you'll get the kind of thorough, thoughtful, and even humorous response from Kenn we've grown so fond of over the years. —The Editors 


Q: Do Evening Grosbeaks really prefer the evening? And if not, how did the bird get its name? 

Kenn Kaufman: During late fall 2020, Evening Grosbeaks have been in the news. All over eastern North America, they have been staging an irruption southward from their breeding range in Canada and the edges of the northeastern states, with small flocks in search of food showing up in parks and at backyard feeders from the Great Lakes south at least as far as Tennessee and the Carolinas.

Such irruptions used to happen fairly often in the middle of the 20th century, and as recently as the 1970s, but in recent decades they have become very infrequent as the eastern population has declined. So this year’s flight has drawn a lot of notice. And as birders have paid more attention to the Evening Grosbeak, many have asked: Why is it called that? “Grosbeak” comes from the French Gros for “thick” and Bec for “beak,” and these finches do have very thick beaks—some might say they’re grossly thick. But why “Evening?”

That part of the name goes back to a coincidence and a misunderstanding almost 200 years ago.

At that time, this grosbeak was unknown anywhere in the northeastern states or in the easternmost provinces of Canada. It would go through a dramatic eastward expansion later, extending its breeding range all the way to the Atlantic Coast between the 1850s and the 1920s. (No one knows for sure why this happened, but some have suggested that the planting of boxelder trees, heavy with seeds, in towns across southern Canada provided them with a reliable food source as they spread.) But in the early 1800s the Evening Grosbeak was essentially a western bird. John James Audubon never saw this bird in life; eventually he painted it from specimens sent to him by people who explored the West. Audubon’s predecessor, Alexander Wilson, didn’t include this species in his American Ornithology, and with good reason. That work was completed in 1814, and the grosbeak was not described to science until 1825.

In the early 1820s, a man named Henry Schoolcraft was working as the U.S. Indian Agent at Sault Ste. Marie, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Schoolcraft was studying the language of the local Chippewa tribe but he also had a strong interest in natural history, and in early April 1823 a Chippewa youth brought him a yellow and black, thick-billed bird he had shot with an arrow. The young man had been attracted to the bird by its unfamiliar call. Schoolcraft had never seen the bird but he deduced it was a grosbeak of some kind. He included it in a package of specimens that he sent off later that spring to William Cooper, an ornithologist at the Lyceum of Natural History of New York.

By coincidence, before he sent that package, Schoolcraft had a visit from his friend Joseph Delafield, who was mapping the U.S.-Canada border. Delafield was also interested in nature, and he looked at Schoolcraft’s specimens, including the grosbeak. A few months later, in August 1823, Delafield was in western Ontario, and he wrote to William Cooper: 

“At twilight, the bird which I had before heard to cry in a singular strain, and only at this hour, made its appearance close by my tent, and a flock of about half a dozen perched on the bushes in my encampment . . . I recognized this bird as similar to one in possession of Mr. Schoolcraft, at the Sault Ste. Marie. Its mournful cry about the hour of my encamping, (which was at sunset) had before attracted my attention, but I could never get sight of the bird but on this occasion. There is an extensive plain and swamp . . . My inference was then, and is now, that this bird dwells in such dark retreats, and leaves them at the approach of night.”

It was a compelling story. And Henry Schoolcraft’s notes about the original specimen mentioned that the Chippewa youth had shot it in the evening. William Cooper was convinced. When he formally described the bird to science in 1825, he named it Fringilla vespertina, Latin for “evening finch.” Publications that followed (including Audubon’s own Birds of America) gave it the English name of Evening Grosbeak, and some of them repeated the idea that this was a bird of deep swamps, coming out into the open only near dusk.

That misconception didn’t last long. John K. Townsend spent time in the Pacific Northwest in spring 1836, and he wrote to Audubon about the grosbeaks: “The accounts that have been published . . . are, I think, in many respects incorrect. In the first place, it is stated that they are retiring and silent during the day, and sing only on the approach of evening. Here they are remarkably noisy during the whole of the day, from sunrise to sunset.”   

Audubon quoted this passage from Townsend in Volume 4 of his Ornithological Biography, published in 1838. So in less than 15 years after it was described to science, people already knew that the Evening Grosbeak had no real connection to evening. But by that time, the name was so well established that we have been using it ever since.

Q: I often see birds fighting or chasing each other at my bird feeders. Depending on the situation, the winners are different. Is there some sort of feeder hierarchy? 

KK: Watching a feeder is a great way to gain insights into bird behavior. When we watch closely, we’re likely to see many small acts of aggression. Most of these are subtle: one bird moves in and displaces another; two birds face off briefly before one backs away. Such interactions occur among members of the same species and between completely unrelated species. But they happen constantly. Birds have a natural instinct to compete for resources, and the instinct holds, even when benevolent humans provide an endless supply of food. 

You may have heard the term “pecking order” used for levels of authority or dominance in groups of humans. That is, the boss or ringleader or loudest individual, the dominant person, is said to be at the top of the pecking order. As you might guess from the words, the term was first applied to birds.

Applied to chickens, actually. In the early 1900s a Norwegian scientist, Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe, observed how chickens in a flock had a straight linear sequence from the most dominant to the least, and they expressed their status by pecking at each other. The most dominant individual, the alpha bird, could peck any member of the flock. The second bird could peck any other bird except number one. And so on down to the least dominant individual, which might be pecked at by every other flock member, but couldn’t retaliate.

It might seem sad or unfair, and I certainly wouldn’t want to accept such an unjust arrangement in human society. But in practical terms, it saves a lot of energy for social birds like chickens. When they’re presented with something like a new food source, they don’t waste time fighting over who gets it first; each bird knows its place in the sequence, and more or less waits for its turn.


Among Black-capped Chickadees, winter flocks—usually consisting of about six to 12 individuals—have a firm hierarchy

The same kind of social structure, known as a dominance hierarchy, has been found in many other kinds of social birds. Among Black-capped Chickadees, winter flocks—usually consisting of about six to 12 individuals—have a firm hierarchy in which males are dominant to females, and older birds are usually (but not always) dominant to younger ones. Chickadees express their aggression not with pecking, like chickens, but with various display postures. In one such display, one bird faces another, ruffles up its feathers, and partly spreads its wings; if the second bird is intimidated, it sleeks its feathers down as a sign of appeasement. In another common display, the dominant chickadee leans toward another and opens its bill wide several times. You might see these interactions if a flock of chickadees arrives at your feeder.

Of course, when multiple species come together at the same feeders, things become much more complicated. The possibilities for different combinations become almost endless. A few years ago, participants in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch were asked to keep track of dominance interactions among different species. Later, scientists published a study based on more than 7,600 observations involving 136 species. Not surprisingly, large species tended to be dominant over small ones. Massive birds like Wild Turkey and Common Raven (which most of us don’t see at our feeders every day) were near the top of the heap, while tiny creatures like Ruby-crowned Kinglets were near the bottom. But even with the amount of raw information in this study, many of the interactions were represented by only a few data points, so there is plenty of room for more research.

You can add to your own knowledge and enjoyment of birds, and potentially collect information useful to science, by keeping track of any dominance interactions you see. Project FeederWatch now includes a space on their reporting forms to record any such interactions. And for your own interest, the more detailed your notes, the better: What happens, for example, when a female Northern Cardinal faces off against a male Red-winged Blackbird? Or when a young White-crowned Sparrow tries to displace a female House Sparrow? New discoveries and understanding may be waiting right outside your window.