Gangster Grosbeaks at the Feeder

THE thundering herd of evening grosbeaks assaulted the breakfast window feeder on schedule, and my partner in toast and plum jam said, ``Wonder where they nest?'' I get a lot of that kind of stuff.

One morning she asked how I spell Chakowsky, and another time it was that fourth language they speak in Switzerland. About two weeks ago it was Fermat's Last Theorem. And now the nesting place of the evening grosbeak.

I am the organizer, charter subscriber, and total enrollment of the Society For Never Memorizing Anything That Can Be Looked Up, which relieves me of carrying about a great amount of knowledge that would slow me down as I go around encouraging clean living and attending to the details of my numerous philanthropies. I have no idea where the evening grosbeak nests, but I have a book.

This time it didn't work.

The book (fact is, I looked at two books) says the evening grosbeak nests in the Canadian northwest, and migrates in winter as far east as Michigan. I didn't find anything about these gangster grosbeaks we have in Maine.

So there is a discrepancy 'twixt what I memorize and what I look up. The gentleman grosbeak is a handsome thing, and his ladyperson is striking, although subdued. She seems adequately feminine, while he is cockydoodle to a fault with his bandmaster's garish-golden flair.

They come to the feeder in a swirl of furor, a couple of dozen at a time, and they hover and perch and rant about and I cringe over my toast as the expense builds up. I do not believe, deep down, in feeding any bird other than a laying hen. I know; I know! The poor things in the cold and the snow, and all that.

Every one of these friendly feathered freeloaders that squanders my solvency can fly to Guatemala cheaper than I can go to the pet supply store. Every time I stingily dole out a teaspoon of seed (and that only after my wife's repeated urging in the pecking order), I call deprecations contumely into the trees that surround our abode, and I ask each bird one by one if he realizes he's a bum and I'm the welfare state.

The evening grosbeak, it says, nests in conifers. I wouldn't put it past him. Every July, when Bill and I shun civilization and go into the great northwoods of Maine for our Grandfather's Retreat, we take one day of our week to renew our youth at Baker Lake. I'm talking about far up; Baker Lake is headwater of the St. John River and almost to Canada.

To get to Baker Lake we circle Cuacomgomac Lake by way of Julian Allen's logging road, and we cross the Ciss on a wooden bridge that is a haven for evening grosbeaks. The Ciss is a deadwater thoroughfare connecting Round Pond with Cauc Lake, and is used exclusively by feeding moose and paddling Boy Scouts who pass at great expense to give their scoutmasters free rides.

As Bill and I approach this bridge in our vacationing pickup truck, we are meticulously cautious about traffic. There is no traffic there except the 24-wheel and tree-length pulpwood trucks that operate between Julian's loading brow and the town of St. Juste in Quebec. They carry something like 75 cords at 85 m.p.h., and they cover the 75-odd miles in something like 17 minutes. No prudent person will tangle with one of Julian's trucks.

So we approach the one-lane bridge skittishly, and we not only look but we clean our spectacles, and usually Bill gets out to cup his ear and listen. We have never met a truck on that bridge, which explains why I am here at this moment to bring you tidings about evening grosbeaks.

When we have satisfied ourselves that we are not about to hinder the operations of the Maine forest products industry, we drive slowly over the bridge and cause the resident flock of evening grosbeaks to rise and hover until we pass. It is a golden panoply that proves all the evening grosbeaks are not in northwestern Canada.

These grosbeaks share the bridge with swallows, but the swallows nest under the bridge as they do downstate in barns. We don't know if the grosbeaks nest by that bridge or not, but they are there each July and nobody who publishes bird books seems to know it. The swallows aren't bothered by passing trucks or grandfathers, but fly as swallows do to feed on the mosquitoes and black flies nurtured by the sluggish Ciss. They must consume zillions of them, but being equal-opportunity folks they leave a few to entertain the Boy Scouts. Anyway, the swallows, fewer in number, don't rise in a flock as do the grosbeaks.

I have thus combined what I looked up with what I already knew, and I shall render an ornithological report at toast time tomorrow morning. And I mustn't forget to dole out another teaspoon of seeds. That's about it around our bird feeder at this time.

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