With snow on the ground, probably for the duration, and with the bears hopefully now in bed, the bird feeding season is getting underway in earnest in our area. And that means it’s time to take …
With snow on the ground, probably for the duration, and with the bears hopefully now in bed, the bird feeding season is getting underway in earnest in our area. And that means it’s time to take a look at the annual finch forecast to have some idea which of our favorite winter birds will be showing up at our feeders and how many.
The finch forecast is an annual thing, produced by the Canada-based Finch Research Network, which involves hundreds of observers throughout the forested regions of Canada, who keep close tabs on the abundance of the kinds of natural foods that northern finches like to eat. I know… it’s kind of a nerdy thing, but you know those Canadians.
Northern finches, in case you’re not a bird enthusiast like me, include birds like pine grosbeaks, evening grosbeaks, redpolls, pine siskins, purple finches, and red and white-winged crossbills. All of these birds subsist primarily on conifer seeds, although most of them will take advantage of other food sources as well, particularly in the warmer months of the year, when most birds eat a considerable number of insects. Pine grosbeaks are also major consumers of the fruits of the mountain ash as well as the seeds of black ash, both of which we appear to have in some abundance this year, at least locally. Last year’s drought probably had something to do with that.
Northern finches are migratory, but not in the way we usually think about that. Here in the North Country, we tend to think birds head south in the winter, and that’s true of most birds— just not northern finches.
These birds follow their food sources across the landscape and can migrate hundreds of miles in any direction, even to the north, in winter, depending on where the best food sources are found at any given time. These are, obviously, hardy birds that can take exceptionally cold temperatures as long as they have a good food source.
By assessing the annual cone crop and the abundance of other wild foods, the folks who operate the Finch Research Network (FRN) can make informed predictions about where finches will head next. Exactly how the finches know where to go remains something of a mystery (I won’t go for the obvious Twitter reference here), although it may be a case where they just keep moving until they find what they’re looking for.
The good news is that the conditions across Canada should make for a pretty good movement of pine grosbeaks into our area. Pine grosbeaks summer and breed just north of our area and they move into northeastern Minnesota in varying numbers every winter, depending on the food availability on their summer range. Readers might remember a couple years ago, there was a bumper crop of cones and mountain ash berries to our north and we saw only a handful of pine grosbeaks in our area as a result.
This will not be a repeat of that year. The reports from the FRN point to generally poor food crops in the boreal regions north and east of Lake Superior all the way to central Quebec, but that they improve as you head west— which would include northeastern Minnesota. These conditions should bring good numbers of pine grosbeaks to our area, and I know I’ve been seeing flocks and regularly hearing their sweet calls when I’m out in the woods for the past month already. My guess is they might be a bit slow appearing at feeders this year, given that we have a pretty good crop of natural grosbeak foods, but they should be showing up in increasing numbers at feeders as the winter goes on… and on.
It also looks like we’ll be seeing at least a few more evening grosbeaks this year. The FRN is reporting that evening grosbeak numbers, which had fallen dramatically in recent years, appear to be on the increase, thanks to outbreaks of spruce budworm, which provide a good food source during their nesting season.
We’ve had some evening grosbeaks around all year— they were showing up occasionally over the summer at our bird feeders and have been putting in regular appearances in recent weeks as well. Unlike pine grosbeaks, the noisy and gregarious evening grosbeaks reside in our region year-round, although their numbers can vary a lot depending on food crops.
We can also expect to see redpolls this year, and possibly in high numbers. The FRN reports that it’s a generally poor year for birch seed production and that’s a major food source for both common and hoary redpolls in winter. That means they’ll not only be headed into our region, they may even head further south this winter in significant numbers. Those who provide black sunflower and niger thistle seeds should be able to attract redpolls, although their numbers tend to build at feeders as the winter goes on. You might want to earmark some additional funds for bird seed this season. In a big year, the redpolls can consume a lot of bird seed, the price of which has, not surprisingly, gone up over the past couple years.
We probably won’t see many pine siskins, however, since they are expected to head west to a major cone event in western Canada, where cone crops are said to be the best in recent memory. Then again, we have a decent cone crop in our area, so we could still hold some siskins as well as some crossbills in our area this year.
One thing is for sure… regardless of where the northern finches head this winter, we will still have plenty of activity at area feeders. We have a flock of 20 very hungry blue jays that descend on our feeders like a hoard every morning, interspersed with what must be close to a billion chickadees, which (I’m not kidding) could easily consume ten pounds of sunflower seeds a day just by themselves. I guess after 40 years of feeding birds up here, I’ve developed a bit of a reputation!
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