When I was growing up we lived next to a cemetery: beautiful Mount Pleasant Cemetery in North Toronto. The thick masonry wall that surrounded it stood at the bottom of our small backyard. My mother put a bird feeder back there among a stand of lilac bushes. We got the usual run of Toronto birds: chickadees, blue jays, cardinals.
One day we were looking through the kitchen window when, out of nowhere, a flock of noisy yellow birds flew in and gathered on the lilacs. There must have been 30 or more, chattering and chirping and flapping about as they gobbled seeds from the feeder.
I was enthralled. What were these exotic creatures and how did they find their way to our little yard? My mom and I stood there and watched, spellbound, until, just as suddenly as they arrived, the yellow birds took flight and disappeared in a flurry of flashing white wings.
They were evening grosbeaks. Members of the finch family, they breed in the forests of the North. The males have a bright yellow band across the forehead that gives them a fierce expression. The females are a soft grey tinged with yellow. My Audubon guide says: “This chunky, big-billed finch wanders widely in winter, descending on bird feeders in colorful, noisy flocks to thrill feeder-watchers and to consume prodigious amounts of sunflower seeds.”
Ever since that day half a century ago I’ve dreamed of seeing evening grosbeaks again. They aren’t that rare, but somehow, in a lifetime of now-and-again birdwatching, I never managed it. Then this fall I noticed a picture someone posted on a birding site of a handsome male grosbeak down by the Toronto waterfront. It got me thinking of that time they sailed into my backyard. I can still remember the scene so clearly. The suddenness of it, the strangeness, the feeling of shared excitement.
I was thinking of it again last Saturday at what we generously call the cottage, a tiny A-frame cabin north of the city. We have a bunch of bird feeders up there – about 20, to be honest – and we get everything from white-breasted nuthatches to indigo buntings to red-bellied woodpeckers. But never evening grosbeaks. Not once in 30-odd years of bird feeding.
We were looking out the window when my wife said, “What’s that yellow bird?” An evening grosbeak sat just metres away, perched on the arm of a feeder. Another arrived, then another, until eight or 10 were busily eating away. They came back three or four times over the course of the afternoon, then vanished.
Only a couple of hours earlier I had been picturing them in my mind, remembering that long-ago day at the kitchen window that helped awaken my interest in the natural world. Now here they were, as if summoned by my thoughts.
I don’t believe in miracles or omens or messages from above. That the birds should arrive just as I was imagining them was really only a coincidence. But it lifted my battered spirits all the same.
The sunny summer days when the plague seemed to be receding are far behind us now. The second wave is rolling through. When it will end no one seems to know. The sun is getting weaker, the days shorter. A long dark winter looms. The yellow birds arrived just in time.
It turns out that I wasn’t the only one to get such a cheering surprise. Evening grosbeaks are showing up all over this fall. A poor pine cone crop in northern forests this year means they are venturing farther south for food – what ornithologists call an irruption. Grosbeaks have been turning up from Southern Ontario through the northeastern United States, with at least one sighting as far south as the Florida Panhandle.
A woman north of Toronto posted that she had five pairs of them come by the other day, if only for 10 minutes. Another woman, at Long Point on Lake Erie, said she saw some for the first time in 23 years.
Like me, they seemed to delight in this bit of winged magic – a reminder that, even in hard times, the world is full of wonders.
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