Evening grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus)
|Synonyms:||Fringilla vespertina, Hesperiphona vespertina, Hesperiphona vespertinus|
|Size||Length: 16 - 21.5 cm (2) (3)|
Wingspan: 30 - 36 cm (2)
|Weight||52 - 74 g (2) (3)|
- The evening grosbeak is named after the mistaken belief that it sings only in the evening.
- The evening grosbeak’s genus name means ‘kernel-cracker’, reflecting the bird’s ability to crack large seeds with its heavy, powerful bill.
- The flimsy structure of the evening grosbeak’s nest may help it blend in with surrounding conifer needles and so conceal it from predators.
- Although colourful and conspicuous, the evening grosbeak is quite secretive when breeding and relatively little is known about its breeding behaviour.
- The evening grosbeak does not appear to have a well developed song, and is rarely heard to sing.
The evening grosbeak is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).
The evening grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus) is a large, stocky finch with colourful plumage, a short, slightly notched tail, and a very large, conical bill (2) (3) (4). The common name of the evening grosbeak comes from an old but mistaken belief that this species sings only in the evenings (3).
The male evening grosbeak is quite distinctive, being mostly bright yellow with a brownish-black head, neck and throat, a black tail and wings, and large white wing patches. The dark head is marked by a conspicuous bright yellow forehead and yellow stripes above the eyes. Outside of the breeding season, the heavy bill is off-white or buff, but it becomes pale greenish-yellow in spring. The evening grosbeak’s legs and feet are fleshy pink to brown (2) (3) (4).
The female evening grosbeak is slightly smaller than the male (4) and has much paler, duller plumage. Most of the female’s head and body is greyish-brown, with a yellowish wash on the sides of the neck and white under the tail. The wings and tail are black, with white and grey patches on the wings, a white tail tip and white spotting on the black uppertail coverts (2) (3) (4). The female evening grosbeak may also have faint dark ‘moustache’ stripes either side of the chin (2) (4), and a dark line above the bill to the eye (3). Juveniles are similar in appearance to the adult female, but are duller and browner overall (2) (3) (4).
The evening grosbeak uses a number of different calls, the most common of which is described as a loud ‘cleer’, ‘keeer’, ‘peeer’ or ‘clee-ip’ (3) (4). Interestingly, this species does not appear to have a well developed song (2), and is only very occasionally heard to give a short, rambling, uneven musical warble (3) (4).
Three subspecies of evening grosbeak are recognised (3) (4) (5), with Coccothraustes vespertinus vespertinus having a shorter bill and greyer plumage than Coccothraustes vespertinus brooksi and Coccothraustes vespertinus montanus. Males of C. v. vespertinus also have more yellow on the forehead than males of the other two subspecies, and the three subspecies also vary slightly in their calls (4).
A North American species, the evening grosbeak is widespread across Canada and the United States, reaching as far south as Mexico (2) (3) (4) (6).
The breeding range of C. v. brooksi stretches south from western Canada to California, Arizona and New Mexico in the U.S., while C. v. montanus occurs from southeast Arizona into parts of Mexico. C. v. vespertinus has a more easterly distribution, breeding from central and eastern Canada south to northern Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, New York, Vermont and Massachusetts in the U.S. (3) (4).
Although resident year-round in many areas, the evening grosbeak sometimes undertakes autumn and winter migrations in response to changes in its food supplies. C. v. vespertinus often makes the largest migrations, and may be recorded as far south as Georgia, South Carolina or even Florida (3) (4).
The evening grosbeak breeds in coniferous and mixed forests (2) (3) (4), including those with pine (Pinus), spruce (Picea), fir (Abies), oak (Quercus) and juniper (Juniperus) species (4). In winter, the evening grosbeak can also be seen in deciduous forests, as well as in urban and suburban areas, where it commonly visits bird feeders (2) (3).
The diet of the evening grosbeak includes a wide variety of seeds and small fruits, as well as buds, flowers, grains and nuts (2) (3) (4). It also feeds on insects and other invertebrates (2), particularly budworms (Choristoneura spp.) and small beetles or their larvae (3) (4). The evening grosbeak has been known to break small twigs off maple trees to drink the flowing sap, and this species is also strongly attracted to salt and other minerals, even eating salt along roadsides or consuming mineral-rich soil (4).
The evening grosbeak commonly forages on the ground, but also searches for food among the branches of trees and shrubs, and occasionally captures flying insects in the air (4). The evening grosbeak’s powerful bill enables it to crack very large seeds, such as the stones of cherries (2), and this is reflected in the name of its genus, Coccothraustes, which means ‘kernel-cracker’ (4).
A sociable bird, the evening grosbeak is typically found in large flocks in winter, sometimes gathering in groups of up to several hundred individuals. These break up into smaller groups and pairs during the breeding season, but the evening grosbeak is not highly territorial and several pairs may nest in close proximity (4).
The evening grosbeak usually breeds around May to July. Although it is a distinctive and conspicuous bird, it can be quite secretive during the breeding season, with courtship apparently not involving elaborate songs or displays (4). The nest, constructed almost entirely by the female (4), is built in a tree or large shrub and consists of a loose, flattened, saucer-like structure of twigs and roots, lined with grass, pine needles, fine roots and lichens (2) (4).
The female evening grosbeak lays a clutch of between two and five eggs. The eggs are light blue to bluish-green, with brown or purplish blotches (2) (4), and are incubated by the female for 12 to 14 days (4). The male feeds the female during incubation, and both adults feed the hatchlings, which leave the nest at 13 to 14 days old. The maximum recorded lifespan for an evening grosbeak is about 15 years (4).
The evening grosbeak is common and widespread, and is not currently considered to be at risk of extinction (6). Its range has undergone significant expansion in recent times, particularly towards the east and south (3) (4), possibly as a result of the planting of box elder (Acer negundo) in cities (4). This tree produces abundant seeds which persist on the tree over winter, providing the evening grosbeak with a stable food supply (4).
Despite this range expansion, the evening grosbeak population is believed to be in overall decline (6). This colourful species was once shot for sport before being legally protected, but minor threats now include collisions with windows in residential areas and road fatalities where flocks are attracted to salt and grit on roads (4).
There are not known to be any specific conservation measures currently in place for the evening grosbeak. The breeding biology of this species is relatively poorly known, so it may benefit from further research (4).
Find out more about the evening grosbeak and its conservation:
BirdLife International - Evening grosbeak:
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds - Evening grosbeak:
Birds of North America Online - Evening grosbeak:
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- Coverts: small feathers concealing the bases of larger flight feathers, usually on the wings or tail.
- Deciduous forest: forest consisting mainly of deciduous trees, which shed their leaves at the end of the growing season.
- Genus: a category used in taxonomy, which is below ‘family’ and above ‘species’. A genus tends to contain species that have characteristics in common. The genus forms the first part of a ‘binomial’ Latin species name; the second part is the specific name.
- Incubate: to keep eggs warm so that development is possible.
- Invertebrates: animals with no backbone, such as insects, crustaceans, worms, molluscs, spiders, cnidarians (jellyfish, corals, sea anemones) and echinoderms.
- Larvae: stage in an animal’s lifecycle after it hatches from the egg. Larvae are typically very different in appearance to adults; they are able to feed and move around but usually are unable to reproduce.
- Lichen: a composite organism made up of a fungus in a co-operative partnership with an alga. Owing to this partnership, lichens can thrive in harsh environments such as mountaintops and polar regions. Characteristically forms a crustlike or branching growth on rocks or tree trunks.
- Subspecies: a population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
- Territorial: describes an animal, a pair of animals or a colony that occupies and defends an area.
IUCN Red List (April, 2012)
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds - Evening grosbeak (June, 2012)
- Clement, P., Harris, A. and Davis, J. (1993) Finches and Sparrows: An Identification Guide. Christopher Helm, London.
Gillihan, S.W. and Byers, B. (2001) Evening grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS) (June, 2012)
BirdLife International - Evening grosbeak (June, 2012)