Thom Smith | Naturewatch: Earliest spring arrival since the late 1800s


Hard to believe it is already March, and in this sometimes dreadful month that can't seem to always deliver on its promises, March does include the beginning of spring, the vernal or spring equinox.

This year marks the earliest arrival since the late 1800s — at 12:30 a.m. on the 20th.

Equinox, derived from Latin, meaning "equal night," refers to night and day being nearly exactly the same length — 12 hours — all over the world. In reality, equinoxes don't have exactly 12 hours of daylight.

Q: Years ago, we used to have large flocks of evening grosbeaks at our bird feeder. We haven't seen them in a long time. Have they changed their territory in the winter? Has anybody seen any?

— B. Arienti, Great Barrington

A: The evening grosbeak is seen from time to time hereabouts, and a few have been reported this winter. Often as not, I will hear a small flock in spring or fall.

Its increase in the 20th century could possibly have occurred because of increased planting of box elder, a major food source in cities, although other reasons the species expanded rapidly across the eastern U.S. are not entirely known.

Their numbers are nowhere near what we saw in the late 1950s and into the 1960s, or even the 1970s, when as many as 3,000 were seen multiple times. And the best answer to why we can count a winter's worth of these grosbeaks on our fingers is we don't fully know why the decline has occurred.

The American Bird Conservancy lists the species numbering 4 million and decreasing in North America in recent years. Potential causes of the evening grosbeaks' decline are tar sands exploitation, which has destroyed large swaths of its boreal breeding habitat. Global warming may reduce their habitat even more in future years, and pesticides used to control spruce budworm, an important food for the species, may also factor in, along with changes in forest management.

I, too, remember flocks of dozens or more at our feeders at one time. When I was banding birds in the early 1960s, I learned all too well why they were given the genus name, Coccothraustes. It means "kernel-cracker," reflecting its powerful bill's ability to crack large seeds (and fingers). I also remember marauding flocks of evening grosbeaks eating their way through more than a couple hundred pounds of sunflower seeds in a season.

Q: Since approximately the end of November, there has been a lone turkey hanging around the front part of my property. I have crab apples that, at times, flocks of turkeys have visited, as well as deer.

One day. we noticed a turkey in the crab tree. It was there for awhile before it left. Since then, the lone turkey will visit the crab tree and eat the apples on the ground and in the tree. I started giving it some cracked corn on the real snowy, cold days. It has grown quite a bit in the last two months.

I cannot tell if it is male or female. It does not have the descriptive front feathers, either because it is too young or maybe it is a female.

I am stymied as to why this single turkey is without a flock, do you know? Any guess as to male or female?

— Chris, Hinsdale

A: My first thought is it is an old tom with no ladies to care for. It is not unheard of for a rogue male to be off on its own, sometimes causing trouble, like stopping traffic. It may also only appear to you to be alone as it has developed the tendency to feed alone, and afterward return to its flock.

As for sexing the bird, you apparently have close views of the bird and should check the legs: males (toms) have spurs (up to 1.5 inches in length) on their legs, and a hair-like beard (up to 12 inches long) protruding from their breast. Females lack spurs and have a pale blue head. Female turkeys (hens) are lighter in coloration (brown and buff-colored).

Thom Smith welcomes your questions and comments. Email him at or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.


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