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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Plenty of uncertainty about feeder birds this winter

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 12/6/23

REGIONAL— With the winter bird-feeding season now underway with most folks—even as winter seems to be taking a break— there is considerable uncertainty about just what birds might …

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Plenty of uncertainty about feeder birds this winter


REGIONAL— With the winter bird-feeding season now underway with most folks—even as winter seems to be taking a break— there is considerable uncertainty about just what birds might be showing up at North Country feeders this year.
The annual finch forecast put out by the Canada-based Finch Research Network, or FRN, seems somewhat less definitive than in years past, and that could be because the longtime forecast compiler, Ron Pittaway, died earlier this year.
The network’s data, which relies primarily on cone and fruit crops across the boreal forest as a way to predict winter movements of northern finches, is now being compiled by Tyler Hoar, a biologist and ecologist who lives in Oshawa, Ontario, who worked closely with Pittaway for a number of years. The forecasts aren’t always a perfect fit for northeastern Minnesota, since they’re designed to predict finch movements into southern Ontario and the northeastern U.S., areas which are well south of northern Minnesota.
This year, the forecast notes that cone crops across the interior boreal forest were generally poor and that suggests that there will be potentially significant movement of northern finches this winter. It’s hard to know what that means for our region, since most northern finches are summer residents here as well, so a southerly irruption could take them out of our region.
Perhaps the most coveted northern finch in our area is the pine grosbeak and it’s one of the only ones (other than redpolls) that don’t spend summers here as well, so we always rely on some southerly migration to fill our feeders with these favorites. Since we are part of their normal winter range, it’s a rare year that we don’t have pine grosbeaks. The forecast suggests there should be a typical, perhaps robust movement of these beauties into the area, although from what I’m hearing to date, there are few pine grosbeaks at area feeders. I know there are some in the woods, since I’ve been hearing their sweet songs since late October but, so far, they seem to be finding natural foods. Pine grosbeaks love wild fruits, especially mountain ash berries and we had a pretty decent crop this year so they may be just sticking to the woods for now and will show up at area feeders later in the season.
The forecast also suggests relatively little movement of evening grosbeaks, except in northwestern Ontario, where they expect an exodus due to the generally poor cone crop. That could mean an exodus from our region as well, since our area is contiguous with northwestern Ontario. While there are some evening grosbeaks around, it appears their numbers are down significantly from last winter— at least at this point.
The forecast does portend a strong movement of pine siskins and that could keep area feeders busy this winter with these small but aggressive finches. We’ve had a few showing up at our feeders, but not in great numbers to date. Siskins, like redpolls, often show up at feeders in greater numbers as the winter drags on and their natural food sources are diminished.
While the forecast doesn’t generally address goldfinches, we have had a few of them still at our feeders in recent days. They generally head south this time of year, but the mild conditions and lack of snowcover may keep more of them in the area this winter.
Of course, one thing that has been apparent with the finch forecast from the beginning is that it is mostly speculation based on a relatively limited amount of data. Without a doubt, forecasting the movements of birds, at least with our current level of knowledge, is a lot harder than forecasting the weather.