Winter is coming—and so are some surprise visitors from up north.  

While most avian species migrate south for the season, some Canadian songbirds stay put, filling up on ample amounts of berries, cones, and seeds. Occassionally, they might wander down into the United States, making them a treat for bird lovers during typically quiet months.  

During a normal winter, people in the continental United States can rely on a classic crop of species hanging around their yards and feeders. These include House Sparrows, House Finches, cardinals, jays, Dark-eyed Juncos, Cedar Waxwings, goldfinches, titmice, chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, and an assortment of woodpeckers.    

But in certain years, something unusual happens: a phenomenon known as an “irruption.” When species that reside in the boreal forest are low on food, they’ll dip into the Lower 48 to stave off hunger. Among those are the northern finches. These birds are not nearly as luminous as Snowy Owls (another irruption special) but they’ll come straight to your feeder as long as it’s stocked with the right stuff. A good year can bring Evening Grosbeaks to Massachusetts, Common Redpolls to South Dakota, and White-winged Crossbills to Ohio. The trick is to know when and where they plan on showing up.

Common Redpoll. Norm Dougan/Great Backyard Bird Count

Luckily, there’s already a guy who makes those predictions. Since 2012, Ontario ornithologist Ron Pittaway has been putting together an annual “Winter Finch Forecast.” Pittaway collects data on the seasonal seed, berry, and cone crops across Canada to determine if there will be enough to sustain the hordes of finches and other passerines that fill the province’s coniferous forests. When there are widespread crop failures—either due to poor climatic conditions or insect outbreaks—he’ll project an irruption of a handful of species. Pittaway emphasizes that his forecast is an educated guess, but that doesn’t stop birders from latching onto every word he writes. “It whets our appetites for what to look for each winter,” Geoff LeBaron, director of Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, says.

Sadly, 2016 is looking like a slow one for the more exciting finches such as crossbills and redpolls. As Pittaway explains in his forecast, the cone yield was high in northern Ontario and poor along the U.S.-Canada border. Instead of traveling south, the birds are more likely to travel east to west to gorge. And as LeBaron points out, with the historic drought in southern New England, the East Coast is less alluring to large flocks of finches.

Still, there are a few fun species to hold out for. Red Crossbills, a sprinkling of White-winged Crossbills, Hoary Redpolls, Pine Grosbeaks, and Evening Grosbeaks might turn up around the Northeastern United States in late November to February. Red-breasted Nuthatches and tricky-to-ID Purple Finches are already moving down the Atlantic Coast. Out West, Bohemian Waxwings could cross the border in search of berries. A nice mix of winter passerines is expected around the Rockies as well.

To make the best of what’s coming through—and hope that they stick around—LeBaron suggests filling up your yard with choice eats. Here’s a quick list:

  • Black oil sunflower seeds to draw various crossbills, Evening Grosbeaks, and Purple Finches
  • Nyjer (thistle) seeds to attract Common Redpolls
  • Crabapple fruits to pull in Pine Grosbeaks

Suet and mixed seeds, LeBaron says, aren’t great for northern finch flocks. These birds are highly specialized, and once they find what they like, they’ll indulge until it runs out. 

Another way to track the birds in real time is to use eBird species maps. Simply search for your desired bird to see the latest migration movements across North America. Don’t forget to input your data, too—it’s the best way to learn about the finches' behavior and make your own Pittaway-like prophecies .

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