From the Magazine Magazine

For a certain type of birder, the Winter Finch Forecast is a highlight of the year. 

Canadian naturalist Ron Pittaway pioneered the forecast in the 1970s and ‘80s, using the abundance or scarcity of seeds, berries, and other wild crops in the North Woods to predict the cold-season movements of nomadic birds like crossbills, grosbeaks, and redpolls that roam the continent in search of food. He expanded and formalized the forecast over the ensuing decades, reaching a growing audience of finch fans. 

Pittaway retired his crystal ball in 2020, handing over forecasting duties to his friend and collaborator Tyler Hoar. Audubon magazine called Hoar at his Ontario home in mid-October to run through the highlights of this year’s forecast, learn more about what goes into the annual projection, and find out which of these wide-ranging birds is his favorite.

Since that conversation, many birds have been on the move, much as the forecast predicted. Read on to learn more, and keep an eye out for these northern visitors at your feeders and in your local woods this winter.

***

Audubon: First off, what’s a winter finch?

Tyler Hoar: Winter finches are members of the finch family that breed primarily in the boreal forest. We don’t see them most of the time in southern Canada and the United States because they’re up in the middle of nowhere where there are no roads, happily feeding and breeding. Some years when there’s food, we get very few of them. Other years when there’s no food, they all have to leave the boreal forest in search of food to survive. It’s basically fly or die. If they’re mostly seed eaters, they’re going to come to bird feeders in southern Canada and parts of the United States.

The forecast is primarily finches, but we also include Bohemian Waxwings, Blue Jays, and Red-breasted Nuthatches, which all irrupt. Irruption is basically a mass migration of one or several species from one area to another in search of food.

Audubon: You use crops of wild seeds and fruit across the North to predict irruptions. How do you know where the food is? 

Hoar: This year I had over 60 volunteers. I give them a kind of general scoring system: nonexistent, very poor, poor, average, good, excellent, and bumper crop. They look at different target species that we have, like primarily white spruce, black spruce, tamarack, white pine, red pine, and then the birches and oaks as well, and beeches. Probably 95 percent of the time, when I have people overlapping in an area, their forecasts are quite similar. 

Also, this year I did a 3,700-kilometer drive in five days, and looked at probably 50,000 trees at least, all through northwestern Quebec and northeastern Ontario, filling in holes to try to see what I could see with my own eyes. I was doing that for Ron Pittaway before I took this over. It’s an excuse to go up to the boreal forest and enjoy it. 

You can generally see where the food sources are, and each finch has a few trees that they prefer over other trees, so we can try to match up who likes what, and where’s the main food source. And a lot of these finches, like Pine Siskins and crossbills, migrate more east-west across the boreal than north-south. They just go back and forth, looking for where the food is. 

For example, in 2020 there was very little food. We knew that several species probably would irrupt out in big numbers, because they did not have a food source in the boreal forest or a food source adjacent to the boreal forest to stop them. So once they realize, “We’re out of food,” or “We’re low,” off they would go. Birds were hitting feeders in the Gulf Coast. Pine Siskins were all over the southern United States

Audubon: How confident are you in the forecast each year? Have you ever been flat-out wrong? 

In 2020 I wasn’t flat-out wrong, but I underestimated the Pine Siskins in the East. With covid, you couldn’t travel. So they were sitting up there out of sight and out of mind for all of the finch forecast. There were a lot more up there than what we thought there were. And once they decided it was time to go, they came out in huge numbers and it was like, yup, I underestimated them.

We also have species that can change the forecast after it’s written. Those are the Swainson’s and Gray-cheeked Thrushes, American Robins, black bears, and red squirrels. If they don’t have a lot of food up north, they’ll go after everything and anything they can. So what small food sources reporters have seen up there in late summer could be gone by the time some of these finches come from further north. Years where there’s a big spruce crop, people who do work up north don’t even see red squirrels. Years when we don’t have a good food crop, red squirrels keep tearing your tent apart trying to get at the food and get anything they can find. 

I was always told by Ron Pittaway: Be conservative in your forecast, because birds do different things when they want, and you don’t have a complete picture of every square mile of the boreal forest. Mother Nature does not like to give you a straight answer. It likes to always throw curves at you. 

Audubon: What are the highlights of this year’s forecast?

Hoar: From northwestern Ontario west into Alaska and down the Rocky Mountains there’s a huge masting event, a bumper crop of spruce cones, all the way down towards Arizona. So a lot of finches like siskins and White-winged Crossbills have gone into western North America for the winter because there’s this huge food source. This year in the boreal forest we had a lot of White-winged Crossbills that bred last year in eastern North America. People I know who are doing research up in northern Ontario were watching them heading west in June because they could sense there was something there. They were irrupting out of the East, going west. 

East of the Dakotas and Manitoba we don’t have a great food source. We have four big spruce budworm outbreaks in eastern Canada—three in Quebec, one in northeastern Ontario—and that has been a source of great breeding for Evening Grosbeaks, Purple Finches, and Pine Siskins. But there’s not a lot of food up there for them for the winter. So they’re coming south. And birds like redpolls, who like a good birch crop—the ones that didn’t go west are going to come south.

Two White-winged Crossbills, red birds with black and white wings, perch on a fallen pine tree in a stream.
White-winged Crossbills. Photo: Nick Saunders/Great Backyard Bird Count

There was a good cone crop along the coastal areas in the maritime provinces in Canada, but Hurricane Ian showed up just days after the forecast went out, and caused significant damage to that crop in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. So birds that we thought would be settling in there for the winter are going to have to move. 

Other stuff like Blue Jays and Red-breasted Nuthatches and non-finches, they’ve been moving for a while. They should be going further south. This year one of our contributors in Pennsylvania got about 15 foresters to look at the cone crop in their areas for us, and they found out the acorn crop isn’t that great in Pennsylvania either. So a lot of the jays that come out of Canada and would go there for the winter will probably go even further south. 

Audubon: Aside from your website, how can folks who are interested in winter finches learn more or get involved? 

Hoar: There’s a Facebook group we have called Finches, Irruptions, and Mast Crops. People have posted generally what they’ve seen there, finch-wise, or what information they’ve seen on cone crops. And we’re building an app for iNaturalist where people can just take a picture and put in where they are and what their cone crop looks like, so we can broaden it that way. We’re trying to get as widespread and as many people in here and make it quite a nice citizen science thing. 

It’s become a much bigger audience and bigger anticipation for the forecast than it was in the ‘90s and early 2000s. I knew it was big in Canada. I didn’t know how huge it was in America. Not until I took over did I know that. I’ve had people tell me that seed stores will wait for the report out before putting some of their orders in.

Audubon: What’s your favorite winter finch?

A vibrant gold, black, and white grosbeak perches upside down from a branch.
Evening Grosbeak. Photo: Joshua Pelta Heller

Hoar: I admit I’ve had a bias since my childhood in the ‘70s: the Evening Grosbeak. Back in the ‘70s we had massive spruce budworm outbreaks in Canada and we had huge populations of Evening Grosbeaks. They’ve declined 92 percent since the early ‘70s. I grew up in a city of 100,000 people, and my parents’ house was nowhere near the edge of the city, but every winter flocks of Evening Grosbeaks would be there at our feeder. They were there and then all of a sudden, they weren’t. 

It’s a bird I’ve got a long history with and I just love hearing their little calls, trying to figure out where they are as they fly over. Or just watching them swarming a feeder for seed. When I go to the boreal forest in the winter, there are towns in northeastern Ontario where I know the Evening Grosbeaks will be there. They’re extremely faithful. Certain towns, where people have had feeders for several years, the Evening Grosbeaks that breed around there know about that town. The boreal forest in winter, if it’s not windy, it’s quiet as can be. And as you approach a town, all you hear in the stillness of winter is Evening Grosbeaks doing their buzzy call as they’re flying around, getting all excited at the feeders. 

One way I knew they were probably going to move this year was when I was up in the boreal forest in the beginning of September, they were just all over these towns. It’s a sign they’re going to move because they’re like, “There’s no food in the forest so we’re here.” If there’s lots of food in the forest, they’re like, “We don’t need to come see the town. We don’t need to look for your ornamental fruiting plants or see all the free bird feeders. We’re quite happy where we are.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. A version of this story originally ran in the Winter 2022 issue as “Boreal Bonanza.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.